Bettiola Heloise Fortson, poet and suffragist from Hopkinsville

Randolph Hollingsworth's picture

"Carve out your own career
   Pray don't wait to be led:
Then you won't feel the sneer
   Or have briny tears to shed."
(Untitled, Mental Pearls, 1915)

Bettiola Heloise Fortson was born on December 29, 1890 in Hopkinsville, Kentucky to Mattie Gardner (later Arnold and then Stegall) and James Fortson. Her mother was also born in Hopkinsville (May 31, 1869); Mattie was the second daughter and third child of a seamstress who had moved there from Virginia -- in 1880 when Mattie was 12, and according to the census-taker, the father did not live in the household. Mattie's mother, like herself and her siblings, are identified in the 1880 census as "mulatto." In 1892 Mattie married James Fortson, a black farm laborer who could neither read nor write, and by 1900 James and Mattie lived with the elder Fortsons (George Fortson as 66 and Sarah was 50) and the two youngest of the brothers (both under 10) further west in Massac, a small town in McCracken County. Meanwhile according to the census of 1900, "Bettie Fortson" stayed with the William Evans family who lived on East 13th Street in Hopkinsville. Mr. Evans was identified in the 1900 census as a hackman - neither he nor his wife Agnes could read or write, though their niece Emma Manion (16) who lived with them could. "Bettie" is listed as a 10-year-old boarder who was going to school.

The following details are garnered from a forward to Fortson's book Mental Pearls (1915). Written by a newspaper editor/publisher Julius F. Taylor, the preface includes a brief biographical sketch. Bettiola Heloise Fortson is the third daughter of her parents; and she moved at the age of 12 to Chicago to live with her mother's older sister, Toreado Gardner Mallory, a professional singer. Fortson attended the Fredrick Douglass school and in the eighth grade she "was appointed poet laureate of her class (Taylor, 363)." When her aunt went on a tour of Europe, Fortson went to live with her mother in Evansville, Indiana, and entered the Clark High School there where she graduated in June 1910 having completed a "four-year Latin course (364)." In other words, her curriculum was based on the classics and not so much on the vocational training that was coming into vogue in this time period. She trained with Mme. Lambert in Chicago to do feather work - and then went into millinery business of her own, a respectable career for women in that time. Meanwhile she went on tours giving dramatic readings and poetry recitals, and she played at Chicago's first black-owned theatre, The Pekin, in a leading role in the popular play, "Tallaboo; or, Swept by fire to fame and fortune" by another Kentuckian, Nathaniel R. Harper.

Fortson was a co-founder and president of the University Society of Chicago, a group that was highly regarded among the many African American women's clubs in Chicago that fostered literary studies. Including men and women in its membership, the University Society included lectures and performances that led to the society's primary focus on "artistic and intellectual development (Knupfer, 116). Fortson was second vice-president of the Alpha Suffrage Club which was founded by Ida B. Wells-Barnett in 1913 as the only African American suffrage club in Illinois during that time. The Alpha Suffrage Club once met in the Bridewell Penitentiary in an attempt to recruit the women inmates to organize for their right to vote (Knupfer, 52). The club also organized a group of women who, together with Wells-Barnett, marched in the parade in Washington D.C. in March 1913. Once there, Wells-Barnett refused to stay in the back of the parade with the other women of color and together with Illinois' white clubwomen, including Belle Squire and Virginia Brooks, she marched alongside the whites in representation of equal rights for her race. The club also organized for 35 women to participate in an automobile suffrage parade in Chicago on July 1st of that same year. The club gave lessons to women on how to use the voting machine and introduced the members to the people who were running for office. At the first anniversary of the Club in November 1913, Fortson recited her poem "Brothers" which valorized the story of two men in Alabama who had been killed in a terrible act of mob violence in retribution for their attempt to save their sister from being a sex slave of a local white farmer. The local newspaper called her poem "a beautiful appeal for fairness (Broad Ax, 22 November 1913)." And she was a city organizer of the Chicago Federation of Women's Clubs for more than two years. In 1914 the publisher of the Broad Ax, an African-American newspaper in Chicago, offered to publish several of her poems in the newspaper and send 500 copies of the paper for her to sell in Wilberforce, Ohio at the National Federation of Colored Women's Clubs that year. She was allowed to keep all the proceeds so to pay for the publication of her book the next year. (Broad Ax, 04-07-1917)

Mental Pearls was printed in 1915 when Fortson's club activities began to fade. She is not mentioned in the Alpha Suffrage Club elections that year (see Broad Axe, 6 February 1915, page 2), and it is likely she is constricted by the onset of tuberculosis which eventually will kill her. In June of 1916, the Chicago newspaper reported that Fortson had "just returned from Louisville, Ky. She reports a pleasant trip." But by October of that same year, the Broad Ax ran an article (10-14-1916, page 5) saying that Fortson was "seriously ill from the effects of tuberculosis. She is under the care of Dr. T.S. Officer and there is no hope for her to regain her health." By spring 1917 the Broad Ax updated Fortson's friends that she was "still" confined to her home. "Every day her large sunny room is filled with rare and beautiful flowers, the generous contributions of some of her many friends and admirers and from morning till night, many of those who have been greatly interested in her club work and her achievement in her literary work; call to pay their respects to her, to cheer her up and to express the hope of her gradual restoration to good health...(Broad Ax, 7 April 1917)."

Fortson died at her home 3413 Prairie Avenue in Chicago on the 13th of April, 1917 - not yet having reached her 27th birthday. She had lived long enough to see that in October 1916 Illinois women had won the opportunity to vote for president of the United States. A funeral service was held at Olivet Baptist Church, and Ida B. Wells-Barnett gave the eulogy. Fortson was buried on April 17 at the Mt. Forest Cemetery - according to the Illinois Deaths and Stillbirths Index. However the cemetery was abandoned several decades ago and is now neglected. It is now a part of the Cook County Forest Preserves. Perhaps her grave like many others in that cemetery was moved (see more on this at Owens, 2014), but her final resting place has not yet been verified.

As the great literary scholar Gayle Pemberton writes: "Bettiola Forson is a product of the twentieth century. ... Her intent is both literary and political; she celebrates black life and castigates white America for its racism (Pemberton, xxxiii)." Fortson herself emphasized in her book's preface that she proposed "to furnish some information concerning the Negro, which the white man has failed to print in his many text-books (Fortson, 359)." She went on to indicate her indebtedness to her mother, for without "the daily encouragement of my mother, Mrs. Mattie Forston Arnold, the task would not have been completed." She hoped her book will promote "a literary uplift of all who may have access to its pages." It still does today.

*** Resources ***

Bettiola Fortson in Ancestry.com. Illinois, Deaths and Stillbirths Index, 1916-1947 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011.

Broad Axe (Chicago, Illinois)
   * "The Alpha Suffrage Club will give a big entertainment in honor of Misses Belle Squire, Virginia Brooks and Mrs. Ida Wells-Barnett, three heroines of the suffrage parade in Washington" (29 March 1913) Page 2
   * "The Alpha Suffrage Club to Give a Banquet" by Ida B. Wells Barnett (15 November 1913) Page 2
   * "The Chaperone's Chatter" (25 July 1914) Page 4
   * "Poems and Sonnets -- by Miss Bettiola Forston the New Afro-American Poetess of the Middle West" (1 August 1914) Page 2
   * "Miss Bettiola Fortson" (1 August 1914) Page 4
   * "Miss Bettiola Heloise Forston Is Still Confined To Her Home With Illness" (7 April 1917) Page 4
   * "The Passing Away of Miss Bettiola Heloise Fortson" (21 April 1917) Page 4

Fortson, Bettiola Heloise. "Original Poems and Essays," pp. 357-418 in Six Poets of Racial Uplift: Effie T. Battle, Gertrude Arquene Fisher, Myra Viola Wilds, and Others. New York: G.K. Hall & Co., 1996.

"Forston, Bettiola Heloise," Notable Kentucky African Americans. University of Kentucky, Lexington, Kentucky. http://nkaa.uky.edu/record.php?note_id=2316.

Knupfer, Anne Meis.Toward a Tenderer Humanity and a Nobler Womanhood: African American Women's Clubs in Turn-Of-The-Century Chicago. New York: NYU Press, 1996.

"Mount Forest Cemetery," FindAGrave. https://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=cr&CRid=107023

"Mount Forest Cemetery," The Official Site of Thornton, Illinois. http://www.thornton60476.com/index.asp?Type=GALLERY&SEC={950A389A-3B41-486E-9352-7B3184D73DFB}

Owens, John. "5 years after Burr Oak scandal, hope and challenges," Chicago Tribune (July 7, 2014), http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-met-historically-black-cemeteries-met-20140708-story.html

Pemberton, Gayle. "Introduction" pp. xv-xl in Six Poets of Racial Uplift: Effie T. Battle, Gertrude Arquene Fisher, Myra Viola Wilds, and Others. New York: G.K. Hall & Co., 1996.

Taylor, Julius F. "By Julius F. Taylor, Editor and Publisher," pp. 363-64 in Six Poets of Racial Uplift: Effie T. Battle, Gerrude Arquene Fisher, Myra Viola Wilds, and Others. New York: G.K. Hall & Co., 1996.

"United States Census, 1900," database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:M9WR-ST8 : accessed 2 April 2017), Bettie Fortson in household of William Evans, Hopkinsville city (south, east part) Ward 3-4, Christian, Kentucky, United States; citing enumeration district (ED) 5, sheet 10B, family 191, NARA microfilm publication T623 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1972.); FHL microfilm 1,240,515.

"United States Census, 1900," database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:M9HD-JZD : accessed 2 April 2017), James Fortson in household of George Fortson, Magisterial District 7, Massac, McCracken, Kentucky, United States; citing enumeration district (ED) 75, sheet 9A, family 164, NARA microfilm publication T623 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1972.); FHL microfilm 1,240,540.

"United States Census, 1880," database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:MCCC-Z9Q : accessed 2 April 2017), Mattie Gardner in household of Martha Gardner, Hopkinsville, Christian, Kentucky, United States; citing enumeration district ED 2, sheet 30C, NARA microfilm publication T9 (Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.), roll 0409; FHL microfilm 1,254,409.