Jan 31, 2017

T. Thomas Fortune House

By Lori Draz

As we celebrate Black History Month and the rich legacy of the area’s African-American residents, we focus on a recent success for historic site preservation. This past July, thanks to the efforts of a dedicated group of citizens, the T. Thomas Fortune house in Red Bank was saved from demolition and approved by the borough’s zoning board to be restored. The 12-room home, built in the 1850s, was home to the pioneering black journalist Timothy Thomas Fortune.

The home was built by John R. Bergen and constructed in stages from 1860 to 1885. It was originally a two-story L-shaped building with a living room, dining room, kitchen, and rear storage room on the first floor, three bedrooms on the second floor, and an unfinished attic. Over the years, the Empire style home had several owners and several additions. In 1917, two additional bedrooms were added, the dining room was converted into the living room, and the kitchen and family room were expanded. The first floor of the structure contains two marble-faced fireplaces. In 1918, a one-story bakery was added. According to the preservationists’ website, the home is “a perfect example of ‘Picturesque Eclecticism,’ the high Victorian age which borrowed and placed details from any and every style on the same building. Typical of buildings of this period, it possessed forms of vaguely medieval, vaguely classical, vaguely Baroque, and Rococo derivations, heaped together to provide a  complexity of moods.”

The home had become the target of vandals who left it in such near ruin that the owners submitted an application for a demolition permit to Red Bank Borough. The state’s Green Acres Program stepped in and made an offer to purchase the property, but the owners rejected the state’s offer. Then, area builder Roger Mumford dealt a victory to the group, when he said he would take on the restoration of the home. Those rehabilitation costs come to around $2.5 million. He is planning the Fortune Square, a group of 31 luxury apartments located behind the house and built in a similar exterior style as the Fortune House.

Mr. Mumford intends to sell the home back to the T. Thomas Fortune Project for $1, so that it may serve the public as a cultural center and museum. Maple Hall is on the National Register of Historic Places and the New Jersey Register of Historic Places, and was home to the pioneering black journalist Timothy Thomas Fortune.

Mr. Fortune, or T. Thomas Fortune, was born into slavery on October 3, 1856 and gained his freedom following the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. He went to Howard University to study law, but soon switched to journalism after earning a reputation as a talented writer while working at a black newspaper during college. He married his high school sweetheart, Carrie Smiley, and eventually the couple moved to New York City, where his writing career began to bloom.

Over the next two decades, he became editor and owner of a newspaper named first The New York Globe, and then The New York Freeman in 1884. The New York Freeman was renamed as The New York Age in 1887, with the goal of becoming “The Afro-American Journal of News and Opinion.”

During his 20 years with The New York Age, he was considered to be one of the nation’s leading African-American journalists. His newspaper shined a light on discrimination, lynching, mob violence, and disenfranchisement. In his lifetime, Mr. Fortune was considered one of the leading activists, orators, civil rights leaders, editors, and journalists of his era. He owned and operated three newspapers and used these vehicles to fight for civil rights for blacks and women. He was the founder of the National Afro-American League. This organization was the predecessor for the NAACP. He was a longtime adviser to Booker T. Washington and he actually served as a ghost writer and editor of Mr. Washington’s first autobiography, The Story of My Life and Work. During the course of his career, he published more than 20 books and articles, as well as writing more than 300 editorials in his own newspapers and other.

T. Thomas Fortune Committee co-chair Gilda Rogers says, “The group is representative of the kind of grassroots organization working for an important cause, which is what T. Thomas Fortune stood for. We see ourselves as stewards of his message and work that social justice and human rights are sacred for all people and not just for some. The T. Thomas Fortune Cultural Center, which is projected to open in the fall of 2017, will be a place that will elevate unforgotten history and educate the minds of our young, with active programming and exhibits.”

People can get involved by emailing thomasfortunehouse@gmail.com and joining their mailing list or by attending their upcoming meetings held at Project Write Now, 25 Bridge Avenue, Suite 130, Red Bank. To follow the developments of the restoration, visit www.thomasfortunehouse.weebly.com.