T. Thomas Fortune – The Militant Ex-Slave Who Revolutionized Journalism

T. Thomas Fortune

T. Thomas Fortune is considered one of the leading civil rights advocates for Black Americans through the late 1800s. This article explores his work.

Uncompromising in his defense for the rights of fellow African-Americans, T. Thomas Fortune fought for justice throughout his long career as a journalist. 

Timothy Thomas Fortune was born into slavery in 1856. His parents were Sarah Jane and Emanuel Fortune. Throughout his childhood, Thomas regularly witnessed the violence from the Ku Klux Klan, motivated by extreme political views. 

Fortune’s father was one of the two African-Americans elected as delegates in Florida’s constitutional convention. After being targeted by the Klan, his father was forced to flee, and Thomas became the man of the house. 

With no more than three years of education, Fortune still enrolled at Howard University in 1874. He was an avid reader and a keen learner, but a difficult financial situation forced him to leave after just one year. 

However, he did manage to complete a few law courses. 

After leaving college, T. Thomas Fortune taught at a school in Florida and worked for the Jacksonville Daily Union. However, he quickly realized that he faced an uphill battle living as an African-American in Florida. 

So, he moved to New York and took the lessons he had gained from growing up in a period of Reconstruction. 

During the 1880s, Fortune became frustrated with how both the Democrats and the Republicans handled the protection of Black American rights in the South. 

He frequently published articles supporting political independence and castigated both. 

In 1881, the New York Globe was launched, and Fortune succeeded John F. Quarles as editor. The Globe, along with its successors, the New York Freeman and New York Age, was widely heralded as the most outstanding “race papers” in America. 

Fortune was forced to leave the Globe after it was declared that it would become a Republican paper. The Republican Party refused to subsidize the paper until Fortune left his post. 

By 1884, Fortune had decided that the country needed a national organization to fight for all African-Americans’ political and civil rights. He suggested that this should resemble an all-black version of the Irish National League. 

In 1890, the Afro-American League was formed to protect Black voters in the South and end the lynching. 

The organization also worked to ensure that school funds were equalized for both races. The organization gained support from both the Black press and conventions. 

However, leading Black politicians refused to support it, so the league folded in 1893. 

T. Thomas Fortune formed a working relationship with Booker T. Washington, who later became a direct advisor for Theodore Roosevelt on matters of race. 

Under immense pressure in his professional life, Fortune suffered from issues with his mental health. Towards the end of his life, Fortune explored various writing assignments. He died in Philadelphia. 

The Paper The Negro World published a Eulogy naming him as one of the leaders in improving the lives of Black Americans at that time, placing his work above that of Booker T. Washington while rivaling Frederick Douglass. 

The work of T. Thomas Fortune paved the way for the campaigns of the likes of the NAACP, Malcolm X, and Stokely Carmichael. Like Dr. Martin Luther King, Fortune used his skills with the written word to call for love and unity between races, despite his horrific early years. 

T. Thomas Fortune is featured as a character in HBO’s new hit series “The Gilded Age.”