Bettiola Heloise Fortson was a pioneer poet, essayist, activist and suffragist. Fortson is recognized as one the first African-Americans in the Midwestern United States to write and publish a book.
Fortson was born on December 29, 1890, in Hopkinsville, Kentucky to Mattie Arnold and James Fortson. At age 12, she moved to Chicago to live with her aunt but she would periodically move to Evansville, Indiana to live with her mother when her aunt was traveling. She graduated in 1910 from Clark Street High School in Evansville, Indiana and returned to live in Chicago after graduation.
Forston was one of the founders and president of the University Society of Chicago, a women’s club that would eventually open its doors to men. The organization fostered literary studies and had a primary focus on “artistic and intellectual development” among African-Americans. She was also an active member and second vice president of the Alpha Suffrage Club, the first black women’s suffrage association. For two years she was an organizer for City Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs.
She authored the book “Mental Pearls: Original Poems and Essays,” published by Julius F. Taylor in 1915. Her poems were included in the book, Six Poets of Racial Uplift, published in 1996 by G K Hall.
Forston accomplished a lot during her short life time. She died from tuberculosis at her home 3413 Prairie Avenue in Chicago, Illinois on April 13, 1917, at the age of 26.