Timothy Thomas Fortune: An American Agitator Looks for a Cold Beer in Manhattan
By Jerry Mikorenda
While standing at the corner of Sixth Avenue and 33rd Street on June 4, 1890, Timothy Thomas Fortune thought the hot night called for cold beer. So he strode into Trainor’s Hotel, sat down at the bar and ordered.
“We don’t serve colored people here,” the bartender said.
Fortune asked to speak with the manager, a man called Ennis, who asked him to leave. When Fortune refused, the manager called the police. The officer said there was nothing he could do because no disorderly conduct had taken place. However, if they threw Fortune out of the hotel, the police could arrest him. As many early civil rights leaders did, Fortune stood his ground. The manager physically forced him from the hotel and had him arrested. After spending three hours in lock up, friends posted bail.
Fortune wasted no time in suing James Trainor and his hotel for assault and battery and unlawful imprisonment. But lawsuits take money, of which the militant journalist had little. Six years earlier, Fortune asked Elizabeth Jennings Graham to denounce Chester Arthur’s administration for “selling out” African Americans in hope of gaining sway with Southern Democrats. Out of loyalty, she refused to embarrass the lawyer who became President and won her landmark case to desegregate the New York City’s transit system in 1855.
This time she took up Fortune’s cat, In a September 20, 1890 letter in The New York Age titled “New York’s Lack of Spirit” Jennings Graham admonished an apathetic black community for not rallying to Fortune’s aid with financial support in a case that would benefit them all. In the letter, she notes that her father made a similar public plea for funds in her discrimination case, but only collected seven dollars. Her father paid the rest of her trial fees out of his own pocket.
Going against the legal advice of the day, Fortune hired an African American attorney, T. McCants Stewart,to represent him before an all-white jury. It awarded Fortune $1,016.23 in damages from the hotel.
Trainor appealed the judgement. On June 29, 1892, a three-judge panel reviewedthe case. Ironically, Trainor’s lawyer argued for dismissal because he wasn’t able to probe the juror pool regarding prejudices they might harbor against establishments selling alcohol (Fortune’s lawyer couldn’t ask questions about race either). The hotel also claimed it wasn’t libel for Ennis’ actions. The appeals panel would have none of it. All the judges concurred and affirmed the judgement with costs. Fortune won, as The New York Times proclaimed on March 21, 1894.
Born in Florida the child of slaves, Fortune was largely self-taught. As a boy during Reconstruction, the KKK hunted his family. Fortunebriefly enrolled at Howard University where he took law courses before moving to Manhattan in 1881. A man of many talents, he manufactured and sold his own line of cigars and worked as a printer. He proved much betterat the other end of a pen. Within three years, he wrote a book, Black and White: Land, Labor and Politics of the South and was part owner of a publication that would evolve into The New York Age -– one of the most influential black newspapers in the country.
His newspaper also assisted the careers of many black activists including Ida B. Wells whose daring documentation of lynchings put her life in peril. Known as “race papers,” these broadsheetsgave a voice to the vast population of black American’s suffering from social injustice, physical torture and lynchings. Fortune’s steadfast opposition to any form of discrimination attracted readers,as did his firebrand oratory. In an 1884 speech calling for self-defense he vowed, “Let us agitate! Agitate! Agitate, until the protest shall awake the nation from its indifference.” He advocated using “Afro-American” instead of “colored” as a way for blacks to express their race and ethnicity.
Fortune had a tumultuous twelve-year association with Booker T. Washington serving as his advisor, editor and ghostwriter producing his first autobiography. Fortune’s militant stances often put him at odds with Washington’s politics. Yet he was able to establish important civil rights groups such as the National Afro-American Council, which set the stage for the NAACP to emerge a decade later.
Author of more than 300 editorials and published in twenty books, he ended his career as editor of the Negro World mentoring Zora Neale Hurston, Hubert Harrison and many other aspiring African American writers. He died in 1928 at the age of 71.
Fortune was an agitator with high-minded principles and ideals. At the same time, he realized it was equally important to ensure that anyone who wanted a cold beer on hot day ought to be able to have one.
Jerry Mikorenda is a writer living in Northport. His articles have appeared in The New York Times, Newsday, and The Boston Herald, among other magazines and blogs. He recently completed a biography of Elizabeth Jennings, entitled The First Freedom Rider.
Search for Elizabeth Jennings: Heroine of a Sunday Afternoon in New York City, John H. Hewitt, New York History, Vol. 71, No. 4, pgs. 387-415, (Oct. 1990)
The New York Supplement, Vol. 19, Supreme, Superior, and Lower Courts of Record of New York State, June 16 – September 15, 1892, Fortune v. Trainor, pgs. 598-600
New York Digest: Including All New York Cases Reported from May 31, 188 to January 25, 1915, Fortune v. Trainor, 141 N.Y. 605 (N.Y. 1894), pg. 5001
The New York Age, September 20, 1890
The New York Times, March 21, 1894
Documenting American Violence: A Sourcebook, eds. C. Waldrep and M. Bellesiles, Oxford University Press, pgs. 185-186, (2005)