Thomas O. Fuller, prominent African American church and civic leader and author in early twentieth-century Memphis, was born in Franklinton, North Carolina, on October 25, 1867. His father, J. Henderson Fuller, was a carpenter who bought his freedom from slavery and became a landowner in post-Civil War North Carolina. He was literate, a skill he passed to his wife Mary Eliza Fuller, and they in turn passed on the importance of education to their children. Fuller attended local grammar schools, then received his B.A. degree from Shaw University in 1890, taking a master's degree from that same institution in 1893.
Fuller was both a Baptist minister and educator as a young man, and in 1898 he was elected to the North Carolina State Senate. As he recalled in his 1910 autobiography of his North Carolina career, the election was fraught with racial prejudice; the call for white superiority incited riots that resulted in the arson of a local black newspaper and death of innocent African Americans in Wilmington. Once in office, many black North Carolinians looked to Senator Fuller to push an agenda of racial equality since he was the only African American in the state Senate. Fuller's philosophy of accommodation impeded him from making demands and instead he emphasized cooperation and harmony between the races in hopes that whites would leave law-abiding African Americans alone. Fuller's approach, however, gained little support from prominent blacks who wanted more activism for change, nor did it please whites who wanted to eliminate all African Americans from political office, no matter how conservative their politics might be. Fuller was given no committee assignments, and was largely ignored. He did his best to represent his constituents, but the legislature soon passed a constitutional amendment that largely disenfranchised African Americans and ended Fuller's political career.
In 1900 Fuller left North Carolina and became the minister of the First Colored Baptist Church in Memphis. Upon his arrival, Fuller adopted a strategy of accommodation and in fact became one of the most prominent black ministers in the city. However, when one considers Fuller's actions over a forty-year period, the broad category of accommodation does not always apply. Fuller often strongly expressed his pride in being African American and refused to accept the prevailing white notion that blacks were racially inferior. While Fuller clearly adapted himself to the racial climate and assumptions of early twentieth-century Memphis, he also exercised what may be called selective accommodation in dealing with the needs of his congregation and of middle-class African Americans in Memphis in general over the next forty years.
In 1902 Fuller was named principal of Howe Institute, established in 1888 as the Memphis Baptist and Normal Institute for West Tennessee Baptists. Heading the Institute provided Fuller with important contacts and outlets for his talents. In 1906-7 Fuller led a movement to relocate the congregation to a new location and building nearby the school. For the following decade, Fuller enlarged both the congregation and the school. Reverend Fuller sought to improve the lives of African Americans by fostering a sense of black pride and stressing the importance of education. Under his leadership, the Howe Institute grew both in its student population and in the addition of buildings. In the beginning of the twentieth century, the Howe Institute was one of few schools in Memphis to offer education to blacks above grammar school. The curriculum provided religious as well as a general academic training for students, including classical studies in Greek and Latin. Fuller was discreet in only publicizing the Institute's industrial training program, which was actually limited to cooking and printing classes. Otherwise, the students received a broad and liberal education. Originally appointed as the interim principal until the Institute could find someone to fill the position full time, Fuller's "temporary" arrangement lasted twenty-seven years.
With his prominent positions in education and religion came increased social and political responsibility. In 1905 Fuller was a conservative voice in the dispute and strike over the segregation of the city's streetcars. He urged compliance and highlighted the Christian virtues of abiding the law. When black community members threatened to confront streetcar conductors, Reverend Fuller argued that public confrontations would only produce violence against African Americans. With his experiences in North Carolina in mind, Fuller viewed attempts to protest the new laws as futile, believing that the white power structure would crush any opposition.
Fuller eventually ventured into the possibility of a more activist social and political agenda after a vicious white mob lynched Ell C. Parsons by burning him to death, a grotesque spectacle witnessed by an estimated five thousand men, women, and children in May 1917. The following month, Fuller became one of the initial members of the first chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to be established in Memphis. Fuller soon found himself at odds with the organization when it denounced Tennessee Governor Thomas C. Rye, however, and he allowed his membership to lapse.
Three years later Fuller played a prominent role in establishing a Memphis chapter of the Commission on Interracial Cooperation (CIC). The CIC rose out of the ashes of considerable racial violence following the end of World War I as a conservative organization that aimed to improve communication between African American elites and their white counterparts. In Memphis the CIC operated as a subcommittee of the white Chamber of Commerce and a group of ministers, chaired by Fuller, who headed the Public Welfare League. The organization was commonly known as the Memphis Inter-Racial League (MIL) and claimed over twelve hundred members, making it by far the largest and most activist black CIC group in the state. The MIL maintained an office and hired a staff of blacks. Fuller took credit for bettering race relations and improving schools and playgrounds in Memphis during the 1920s and successfully petitioned the city for a change in the name of the Negro Industrial High School to Booker T. Washington High School. The MIL also spoke out against crime and waged a campaign encouraging the upholding of the law, temperance, and active employment. While some members of the African American community criticized Fuller and other MIL members of acting as "Uncle Toms" to the white community, it cannot be denied that Fuller's methods also reached the intended audience. Fuller often presented his views in the white press. He was so successful at utilizing this venue that he wrote more columns of print than any other African American man in Memphis history.
Fuller's visibility within the conservative MIL soon attracted the attention of master politician and powerful machine boss E. H. Crump, and Crump began to consult with Fuller as a "respected" (i.e., conservative) voice of the African American community. Fuller had hoped that his relationships with white leaders in Memphis would eventually bring lasting benefits to Memphis blacks. In 1927, after Roger Williams University had burned in Nashville, Fuller sought to translate his assumed white support into a new college campus, which would combine Roger Williams with Howe Institute. He purchased property on South Parkway and requested official permission to develop the new institution. Civic clubs were especially vocal in opposition, and city government refused to give Fuller the necessary building permits.
Reverend Fuller took a hiatus from Howe Institute in 1931 and used the time to research and write. Throughout the decade, he published books aimed at increasing African American pride. Titles included Pictorial History of the American Negro (1933), History of the Negro Baptists in Tennessee (1936), Bridging the Racial Chasms (1937), and The Story of the Church Life Among Negroes in Memphis (1938). When these titles are added to his earlier autobiography, Twenty Years in Public Life, 1890-1910, North Carolina-Tennessee (1910), Fuller emerges as one of the most prolific African American history writers to be published in Tennessee during the first half of the twentieth century. Fuller hoped that by providing the African American history missing from traditional American history narratives, these publications would empower black youth to continue the established progress of their forefathers.
The depression era, however, soon threatened the progress of institution- and community-building among Memphis blacks. In the late 1930s, the Foote Homes project condemned the property of First Colored Baptist Church, Howe Institute, and several other black institutions, businesses, and many residences. In all, according to estimates by the Memphis Housing Authority, Foote Homes would displace 16 white families and 428 black families. The black community, led by Reverend Fuller, protested vigorously that one of the best and most stable black neighborhoods would be destroyed in the name of progress. Mayor Walter Overton, Crump, and housing officials ignored their pleas and the congregation of First Colored Baptist Church found itself looking for a new home as the wrecking ball demolished their handsome brick church building.
In 1939 Fuller helped the church find a suitable lot across the street from Booker T. Washington High School. The large lot held the historic Sanford home, a Second Empire-style dwelling which had been remodeled into a settlement house named the Bethlehem Center. Fuller helped to design the church, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, and used the former settlement house as his parsonage and for church offices. Fuller lived at the parsonage until his death in 1942.