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A Comparison of T. Thomas Fortune and Booker T. Washington

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Though not as well known today as many of his contemporaries, T. Thomas Fortune was the foremost African American journalist of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Using his editorial position at a series of black newspapers in New York City, Fortune established himself as a leading spokesman and defender of the rights of African Americans in both the South and the North.

The life of T Thomas Fortune pned several significant periods in American history. His seventy-two years included the experiences of slavery, Reconstruction, "the Nadir," and the Harlem Renaissance. In varying degrees, these opposing periods in time influenced and determined the direction of Fortune's life and the realization if his identity as an "Afro-American. ” On the other hand, one of the most influential, celebrated, and criticized black leaders of the twentieth century was Booker T.Washington.

Few public figures in African American life during the period of post-slavery excited as much passion and misunderstanding as Washington. Born a slave and deprived of any early education, he became America’s foremost black educator of the late 1890s and early 1900s, introducing the nation to his own brand of education and reform for the post-Civil War United States. Besides using his journalistic pulpit to demand equal economic opportunity for blacks and equal protection under the law, T. Thomas Fortune founded the Afro-American League, an equal rights organization that preceded the Niagara Movement and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), to extend this battle into the political arena. However, his great hopes for the league never materialized, and he gradually began to abandon his militant position in favor of educator/activist Booker T. Washington's compromising, accommodationist stance (Thornbrough). Fortune's later years, wracked by alcohol abuse, depression, and poverty, precipitated a decline in his once-prominent reputation as well.

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Washington’s career, on the other hand, was no less successful or influential than that of Fortune’s. He was the founder, first teacher, and principal of the Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama, which later became the staple for almost all southern black education. Here Washington instituted his belief in vocational training as a means for black self-reliance, as well as a way to further the black community through providing services people of all races could benefit from.

He became a well-known orator throughout his career, wrote a best-selling autobiography, and advised Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Taft on race relations in the United States. Later in his life Washington was given the nickname of “The Great Accommodator” which provides an indication of why later black influences, such as W. E. B. Du Bois and the N. A. A. C. P. so heavily criticized his leadership. Washington was the driving force behind the Tuskegee machine from 1891 until his death in 1915, constantly controlling every operation that occurred at the school.

Together these two men helped to shape the landscape of the black community for years after their deaths and as will be shown when their paths crossed during the courses of their lives, sparks flew, tempers flared, and the history of Black America was changed forever. Timothy Thomas Fortune was born a slave in Marianna, Florida on October 3, 1858. Early in his boyhood he was exposed to the three factors that later dominated his life - journalism, white racism, and politics. Fortune was only five years old when slavery was abolished in 1863 by the Emancipation Proclamation.

His father, Emanuel Fortune, was a literate slave artisan and one of two African Americans elected as delegates to the 1868 state's constitutional convention and a member of the Florida House of Representatives, and his mother, Sarah Jane Moore, was a slave. Fortune was raised amid tumultuous times in Reconstruction Florida (12). Southern whites, resentful of black political participation, intimidated blacks through acts of violence; Jackson County, the Fortunes' hometown, witnessed some of the worst examples.

The Fortune family escaped with their lives, losing their home and profitable farm as they were forced to emigrate to Jacksonville, Florida to start a new life (23). The young Fortune obtained his education in Florida through a variety of avenues both formal and informal. While in Marianna and Jacksonville he attended Freedmen's Bureau schools and picked up knowledge of the printer's trade from observation in the office of the Marianna Courier. This printing shop was the first of several in which T. Thomas Fortune worked and learned the trade. At the age of thirteen he began his political apprenticeship in Tallahassee, Florida where he was a page in the State Senate and learned first-hand about political corruption and the exploitation of blacks by whites in politics. Fortune's distrust of political parties and his attitude toward race relations were influenced greatly by his teen years in the State Capitol. He also preferred to spend his time hanging around the offices of various local newspapers rather than in school.

As a result, he left Florida in 1876 at the age of 19 and enrolled at Howard University during the winter 1874 term to study law. He changed to journalism after two semesters, but a lack of money limited his stay at Howard (40). While enrolled at school he spent part of his time working in the print shop of the People's Advocate, an early black newspaper, where his love of journalism flourished. In 1877 while still in Washington D. C., Fortune married his long-time sweetheart from Florida, Carrie Smiley. For the next two years he taught school in Florida and worked for the Jacksonville Daily Union as a printer.

In 1878 Fortune traveled to New York, where he was hired to the staff of the New York Sun, eventually working his way up to the editorial staff as those around him began to recognize his incredible abilities as a writer and journalist (Thornbrough). A few years later in 1881 Fortune, along with George Parker and Walter Sampson began the newspaper the New York Globe, where Fortune soon became the editor. The New York Globe and its successors, the New York Freeman in 1884 and the New York Age in 1887, would establish Fortune as the head of black journalists (50).

One of the reasons that these papers were so successful was their high literary quality and relentless editing by Fortune. At this time he began to establish himself as a leading voice in the fight against American racism and wrote several editorials that argued for equal treatment and protection of the black community. Under his leadership, the New York Globe and its predecessors were regarded as the most distinguished Afro-American papers in the nation (wikipedia). While editor of the New York Globe, Fortune attacked Republicans for not caring "a snap of the finger" for Negroes and he called upon blacks to form a "new honest party. Unlike most African Americans of his era, he felt no special affinity or loyalty fort the Republican Party. While most black leaders and black newspapers felt an allegiance to the party of Abraham Lincoln, Fortune denounced the Compromise of 1877, when the Republicans ended Reconstruction and sacrificed the constitutional rights of southern blacks. He believed that the period of Reconstruction had not sufficiently given the black community an opportunity to establish a base for their future in this country (93).

Fortune’s ability to mobilize the black population through the press and other political actions created a desire for the creation of an Afro-American League (Thornbrough). In December of 1889, more than one hundred delegates from twenty-three states met in Chicago to organize the league. The group’s goal was to attain full citizenship and equality for the black community. However, after much effort to organize chapters and raise funds, the league failed, but paved the way for others, such as the Niagara Movement and the N. A. A. C. P. , which is still in action to this day (67).

In 1895, the prominent black leader Frederick Douglass died, making Fortune the most well-known militant black spokesperson in the North. However, this came at the price of Republican funding, since Fortune was an independent political thinker, effectively putting his newspapers into financial crisis and forcing him to depend on Booker T. Washington for small sums of money. At this point in their lives both Fortune and Washington were at the peaks of their influential campaigns, trying to make a difference for the black community. I would now like to talk about the background of our other black leader, Booker T.

Washington, in order for the reader to get a sense of his upbringing and beliefs before the pair is compared. Booker Taliaferro Washington was born in 1856 on a slave plantation in Virginia. He was about ten years old when in 1865 the Union defeated the Rebels, ending the Civil War and essentially freeing the southern slaves. Soon after this Washington’s family settled in West Virginia. This is the time in Booker’s life when he began to have a thirst for learning, so he asked his mother for a Webster’s “blue back” spelling book, which put him on the track to greatness (18).

Washington one day overheard discussion of a school for blacks called Hampton Institute, and he promptly determined that he would seek a formal education there. Before going to Hampton, Washington worked for a second time in the home of a white family, in this case as a houseboy for General Lewis Ruffner and his wife, Viola, owners of the local mines. Here he learned the importance of strict discipline and form, something that he took with him for the rest of his life and readily applied to his everyday endeavors. In 1872 he set out for Hampton Institute.

When his money gave out, he worked at odd jobs. Sleeping under wooden sidewalks, begging rides, and walking, he traveled the remaining 80 miles and asked for admission and assistance (26). After Hampton officials tested him by having him clean a room, he was admitted and given work as a janitor. This is when Booker was noticed for his diligence, hard work, and attention to detail, all characteristics that he emphasized in every aspect of his life. Hampton Institute, founded in 1868 by a former Union general, emphasized manual training. The students learned useful trades and earned their way.

Washington studied brick masonry along with collegiate courses. Graduating in 1876, he taught in a rural school for two years (40). Studying at Wayland Seminary in Washington, D. C., he became disenchanted with classical education, considering his fellow students to be dandies more interested in making an impression and living off the black masses than in serving mankind. He became convinced that practical, manual training in rural skills and crafts would save his race, not higher learning divorced from the reality of the black man's downtrodden existence.

In 1879 he was invited to teach at Hampton Institute, particularly to supervise 100 Native Americans admitted experimentally (Washington 47). He proved a great success in his two years on the faculty. In 1881 citizens in Tuskegee, Alabama, asked Hampton's president to recommend a white man to head their new black college; he suggested Washington instead. The school had an annual legislative appropriation of $2, 000 for salaries, but no campus, buildings, pupils, or staff (Washington 51). Washington had to recruit pupils and teachers and raise money for land, buildings, and equipment.

Under Washington's leadership (1881-1915), Tuskegee Institute became an important force in black education. Tuskegee pioneered in agricultural extension, sending out demonstration wagons that brought better methods to farmers and sharecroppers. Graduates founded numerous "little Tuskegees". African Americans mired in the poverty and degradation of cotton sharecropping improved their farming techniques, income, and living conditions. Washington urged them to become capitalists, founding the National Negro Business League in 1900.

By 1915 Tuskegee had 1, 500 students and a larger endowment than any other black institution. At this point in Washington’s journey he begins to kindle a friendship with a black journalist from New York named T. Thomas Fortune. Washington and Fortune seemingly made strange friends. Apparent opposites - the former a soft-spoken accommodationist and the latter a militant agitator - in actuality, they were very good friends who corresponded almost daily throughout the 1890s. Their relationship was based on mutual affection, mutual self-interest, similar backgrounds, and the same ultimate goals for people of color.

Born as slaves in the same year and growing up in the Reconstruction South, both men felt a deep obligation to their native region and a duty to improve the condition of southern blacks. Washington provided a model for the black community after his own life. He believed that blacks should work their way from the bottom up because that is where they stood in the first place. He proclaimed that there was honor, duty, and merit to be found in performing challenging, hard work (Washington 37-38). At Tuskegee Booker reinforced the fact that blacks should not feel undignified about taking part in manual labor, but instead learn to love it.

Washington also emphasized the importance of personal hygiene to each of his students, stating that “Absolute cleanliness of the body has been insisted upon from the first. This belief stemmed from the thought that being presentable and personally responsible for one’s appearance would lead to a more civilized environment for all men and women (80). He believed that to do something that the world needed was the greatest way to earn merit and become rewarded in society. He also believed that blacks should become economically viable before attempting any ventures into politics.

Washington stated that black rights would come at a slow and steady pace and that blacks should wait before becoming involved with political affairs. This accomodationist attitude was not favored by many in the black community, including Fortune’s militant beliefs of agitation. Booker’s motto was “hand, head, and heart,” meaning that that all things should start through the dignified duties of performing tasks the world needs done (42). He believed in an industrial education where his students were prepared for the real world and able to make a contribution not only to themselves, but the black community as a whole.

Like Washington, Fortune emphasized the importance of education and believed that practical vocational training was the immediate educational need for blacks as they emerged from slavery. He, too, counseled success through thrift, hard work, and the acquisition of land, believing that education and economic progress were necessary before blacks could attain full citizenship rights. Although the two leaders played different roles and presented contrasting public images, their alliance was mutually useful. Fortune was editor of the leading black newspaper, and Washington needed the Age to present and defend his ideas and methods.

Fortune also helped edit Washington's speeches and was the ghostwriter for books and articles appearing under his name, including A New Negro for a New Century and The Negro in Business. Similarly, as Washington's reputation and influence grew, particularly in Republican circles, he could be a powerful friend. For years he secretly subsidized the Age, helping to keep it solvent. Fortune hoped for Washington's intercession with President Theodore Roosevelt for a permanent political appointment, but all he received was a temporary mission to the Philippines in 1903.

Fortune's dependency on Washington continued to grow. He bought an expensive house, Maple Hill, in Red Bank, New Jersey, in 1901. Its mortgage payments, added to the financial woes of the Age, compounded his monetary problems. As attacks mounted on Washington for his accommodationist methods, Fortune felt compelled to defend his friend. But Washington's more militant black critics, notably W. E. B. Du Bois and the leaders of the 1905 Niagara Movement, simply denounced Fortune as an untrustworthy, former "Afro-American agitator. A new generation of black leaders was appearing, and Fortune's influence was beginning to wane. He broke with Washington and joined members of the Niagara Group in criticizing President Roosevelt's discharge of black troops following a riot in Brownsville, Texas, in 1906. Needing Washington's support though ideologically drawn to his detractors, Fortune faced a crossroads: his life began to disintegrate. Disillusioned and discouraged after his long efforts on behalf of black America, he separated from his wife, increased his heavy drinking, and suffered what his contemporaries described as a nervous breakdown.

Washington took control of the Age in 1907 by becoming one of the principal stockholders. Later that year Fortune sold his interest in the paper to Fred R. Moore, who became the new editor. This effectively ended Fortune's influence as a black leader. From time to time he found work as an editorial writer and correspondent for the Age and the Amsterdam News. He edited the Washington Sun for a few months before it folded. Slowly he recovered and in 1919 he joined the staff of the Norfolk Journal and Guide, continuing to write commentaries and editorials for the rest of his life.

He became editor of Negro World, black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey's publication, in 1923, remaining there until his death in 1928, but not before the pioneer activist had joined the ranks of Washington's critics, apologized for his ideological waywardness, and observed that "all along the way I have shaken the trees and others have gathered the fruit. ” Many critics agree that it was all but impossible for anyone to achieve the ambitious goals Fortune had set given the climate of the times in which he lived.

When he abandoned his militant ideology to promote Washington's more accommodationist methods, Fortune destroyed his own credibility as a leader and his personal integrity as well. This was something he could not live with, and it seemed to destroy him. As Emma Lou Thornbrough wrote in her biography T. Thomas Fortune: Militant Journalist, "Unable to bend as Washington had, he was broken. Before he was thirty years old Timothy Thomas Fortune was widely acclaimed as the most able and influential black journalist of his times and was seen by some as a possible successor to Frederick Douglass.

As an editor in New York toward the end of the nineteenth century, he sought to use the press as a vehicle for mobilizing black public opinion to support his militant ideology and for establishing himself as spokesman for and defender of the rights of Afro-Americans in the South as well as in the North. He viewed political action as necessary for achieving his ideological goals as well as an instrument for fulfilling his own personal aspirations. He also conceived of a national organization as a means of carrying out his aims and led in the formation of the National Afro-American League.

His political ambitions were thwarted as were his hopes for the League, and in later years his reputation as a militant and uncompromising champion of the rights of blacks was compromised by his ties with Booker T. Washington, with whom his career became inextricably linked. This seeming paradoxical relationship between the two men grew out of the interest that each had in furthering his own career as well as out of mutual respect and affection. But as Washington's prestige and power grew, Fortune's influence and reputation declined (19). Although outwardly conciliatory, Washington secretly financed and encouraged attempts and lawsuits to block southern moves to disfranchise and segregate blacks. He had lost two wives by death and married a third time in 1893. His death on Nov. 14, 1915, cleared the way for blacks to return to Douglass's tactics of agitating for equal political, social, and economic rights (wikipedia). In 1895 Washington gave his famous "Atlanta Compromise" speech. Although he shared the late Frederick Douglass's long-range goals of equality and integration, Washington renounced agitation and protest tactics.

He urged blacks to subordinate demands for political and social rights, concentrating instead on improving job skills and usefulness. "The opportunity to earn a dollar in a factory just now is worth infinitely more than the opportunity to spend a dollar in an opera-house,” he said (101). He appealed to white people to rely on loyal, proven black workers, pointing out that the South would advance to the degree that blacks were allowed to secure education and become productive. Washington's position so pleased whites, North and South, that they made him the new black spokesman.

He became powerful, having the deciding voice in Federal appointments of African Americans and in philanthropic grants to black institutions. Through subsidies or secret partnerships, he controlled black newspapers, stifling critics. Overawed by his power and hoping his tactics would work, many blacks went along. However, increasingly during his last years, such black intellectuals as W. E. B. Du Bois, John Hope, and William Monroe Trotter denounced his surrender of civil rights and his stressing of training in crafts, some obsolete, to the neglect of liberal education.

Opposition centered in the Niagara Movement, founded in 1905, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which succeeded it in 1910. In the Atlanta Exposition speech Booker speaks of the progress of the black community ahs made since the end of the Civil War. He had created the Negro Business League, where black businesses were able to get money and become established through the aid of other black businesses. He also stated his theory of education needing to be industrial, so that young blacks could become independent by providing services the world needs.

However, this progress seemed to be tainted because there was very little room for growth, especially in industry and politics. Here it is said that Booker became known as an accomodationist. He made statements during the speech that lead others in the black community to criticize his leadership and future goals of the race as a whole. He said that blacks got as much out of slavery as whites, meaning that they had skills others did not possess.

He also stated that he opposed slavery, but was not bitter about the entire nation under this hierarchal control. He thought that blacks should not ask for many rights or privileges because he did not want to annoy them. This view differed completing from those of T. Thomas Fortune because he believed in a more militant approach to the gaining of political and social rights. In “We Know Our Rights and Have the Courage to Defend Them” he presents a black nationalist view of the United States after the Civil War and Reconstruction. Booker also shared in this view, stating the “we are a nation within a nation,” although many educated blacks wanted to be seen as Americans. In this writing, Fortune wanted to press the case for black rights, sharing a spirit of agitation with the black community, something that differed heavily from the teachings of Washington (214). Fortune wanted to stir things up by challenging blacks to have manhood and to stand up to white prejudice that they witnessed in their everyday lives, coming up with an actual program to aid this progress (217).

First, he represses voter intimidation of the blacks in the South. Second, he discourages the reign of the lynch and mob laws. And third, he discusses the unequal distribution of school funds to black educational endeavors, such as the Tuskegee Institute. Fortune believed that many of these issues were worth fighting for and if the black community could act in solidarity they would eventually achieve their goals (Bracey et. al. 218). The relationship between Fortune and Washington was, to say the least, a tumultuous one, riddled with disagreements and hardships.

T. Thomas Fortune was much more outspoken and militant than was his friend Washington, who preferred a less hostile method of progressivism. These men both live incredibly different lives, but were connected by their beliefs in creating a better world for the black community, through political, social, and economic change. Their work will never be forgotten and will be able to be seen well into the future as blacks are continuing to forge ahead, making the world a place that both T. Thomas Fortune and Booker T. Washington could be proud of.


  1. Washington, Booker T. Up From Slavery. New York: W. W. Norton & Company Inc, 1996.
  2. Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Bedford/St. Martins, 1997.
  3. Fortune, Thomas T. Black and White: Land, Labor, and Politics in the South. New York: Arno Press, 1968.
  4. Thornbrough, Emma Lou. T. Thomas Fortune: Militant Journalist. New York: University of Chicago Press, 1972.
  5. Bracey, John H. , August Meier, and Elliot Rudwick. Black Nationalism in America. New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company Inc, 1970 “Wikipedia. ” 9 Nov. 2007
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