RED BANK – He was friends with Booker T. Washington and gave W.E.B. Du Bois his first writing job. He was born into slavery and later coined the term “Afro-American.” He owned three newspapers and was one of the most influential black voices of his time.
But T. Thomas Fortune has been swept aside by time. Locals may be surprised to know that he lived in Red Bank for nearly a decade, in a house called Maple Hall, on what’s now known as Drs. James Parker Boulevard.
“A good part of the world certainly knew who T. Thomas Fortune was,” said Lorraine Stone, a member of a local group dedicated to Fortune’s legacy. “But some great tide was against T. Thomas fortune and his name was allowed to fade.”
That house, with its boarded-up white façade and crumbling mansard roof, was home to Fortune for most of the first decade of the 20th Century. It’s now home to raccoons and has sustained extensive water damage. Before it was sealed, drug users sometimes took shelter there.
A local organization has been working for the past several years to preserve the house and Fortune’s memory, with little tangible success. But late last year, a Red Bank homebuilder got involved and, along with the T. Thomas Fortune Project Committee, hatched a plan that is on the verge of saving the property.
Roger Mumford, owner of Roger Mumford Homes, last month won approval from the Red Bank Zoning Board to rehabilitate Maple Hall and convert it to a cultural center, and add luxury apartments at the back of the property.
The zoning board still must sign off on a final resolution, but absent any surprises it appears that the Fortune House – one of two National Historic Landmarks in New Jersey related to African-Americans – won’t be lost to history.
Not interested in tearing the house down
Less than a year ago, that seemed a real possibility.
New Jersey’s Green Acres program, an arm of the Department of Environmental Protection, last year approached the Vaccarelli family about buying the Fortune House. The Vaccarellis have owned the property for nearly a century and for many years ran a bakery out of the house.
The two parties were unable to reach a deal and the owners were seriously considering tearing the house down so they could sell the property, Mumford said. The DEP declined to comment on whether it was interested in the property, citing department policy.
“Interested developers had indicated to them that the house would have to come down if they wanted to sell the property,” Mumford said. “Two family members came to me and said they were processing a demolition permit.”
According to the National Parks Service, which runs the National Register of Historic Landmarks, even properties that have been given landmark status can be torn down by private owners.
Mumford told the Vaccarellis he was intrigued, but on one condition.
“I told the family I was interested in the property, but not in taking the house down,” he said.
Fighting for a legacy
Fortune was born a slave in Florida in 1856 and freed by the Emancipation Proclamation eight years later, according to the Fortune committee’s website. He worked as a page in the Florida Legislature, before briefly studying law at Howard University.
He would rise to prominence in the late 1800s after moving to New York and launching his journalism career. The New York Globe, New York Freeman and New York Age – the three newspapers he owned – further boosted his profile. He became friends with Booker T. Washington, and worked with W.E.B. Du Bois and Ida B. Wells, three of the most prominent African-Americans of that time.
In 1901, Fortune moved to Red Bank and lived there until 1910. A year after he took up residence in town at Maple Hall, President Theodore Roosevelt’s administration chose him to travel to the Philippines to study race and trade, according to the American National Biography.
Later in life, after he left Red Bank and struggled with alcoholism and depression, Fortune would rebound and work for Marcus Garvey’s newspaper the Negro World. He died in Philadelphia in 1928 at the age of 71.
Many of Fortune’s friends and contemporaries are revered for their contributions to African-American history. So why has Fortune, once as important as any of them, been largely forgotten?
Gilda Rogers, a historian and author among those leading the charge to save the Fortune House, said she thinks Fortune has faded because many of his ideas were considered radical at the time. His descent into alcoholism and depression likely did his legacy no favors, she added.
Walter Greason, a Monmouth University historian, said he thinks Fortune fell victim to the historians who wrote immediately after his time. Many ignored the contributions of black people altogether, while others preferred to champion the work of more conservative African-Americans, like Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver.
Both Rogers and Greason are among the many who have been working to get Fortune back on the same footing with the African-American leaders of his time. For them, the project to turn the historic house into a cultural center and build luxury apartments is the fruit of a fight that’s been waged for a decade.
The Fortune committee, made up of community leaders, activists and historians, has been meeting for several years, raising awareness about Fortune while trying to raise money.
But the group was never able to get the $2 million or so it would have taken to buy the property and fix up the house. So, when the state tried to step in and buy the house through the Green Acres program, it seemed like a boon.
“That coalition has gone through so many changes, pain and disillusionment,” Greason said about the Fortune Committee. “Following the Green Acres rejection, it was heartbreaking to see we couldn’t get something done.”
Heartbreaking for Greason because he considers Fortune to be one of the most important African-Americans in history.
“He was the dominant voice calling for an end to lynching and violence against African-Americans,” Greason said. “You don’t get the Harlem Renaissance without T. Thomas Fortune. He blazed that trail.”
Rogers said he was “a change agent in the history of not just African-Americans, but in American history.”
Should the Red Bank Zoning Board give the final thumbs up on Thursday, Mumford won’t delay in starting the project.
He has agreed a price with the Vaccarelli family for the property and plans to pay $925,000 for the derelict house and surrounding land, about one acre at 94 Drs. James Parker Boulevard. Mumford said he expects to close the deal by mid-fall.
Even before it got approval from the town, Mumford said he spent about $200,000 on the project in engineering planning.
“We took a pretty serious risk, almost crazy,” he said. “But I always say you go out right or you go right out.”
After acquisition, the first step will be to restore the historic house. Back will come the intricate corbels and the French mansard roof. Mumford has budgeted more than $1.5 million for the work required to get Maple Hall back to its original splendor.
Once the rehab is complete, the Fortune committee will pay $1 for the deed to the house and create the T. Thomas Fortune Cultural Center, which will serve as a small museum. The house will be subdivided from the remainder of the property, allowing Mumford to break ground on the roughly $4.5 million luxury apartments, called Fortune Square.
The zoning board approved 31 apartments and a gym. Nine of the units will have two bedrooms and will be 1,250 square feet. The remaining 22 one-bedroom units will range from 750 to 1,050 square feet. The apartments will rent from the low-$2,000s per month, Mumford said.
The apartment building will borrow many architectural features from the Fortune House. Most noticeable will by the roof.
A few of the apartments likely will be set aside as affordable units, though the details on those have not been disclosed. Greason said the inclusion of affordable apartments was crucial for his support.
“I couldn’t get behind it without the affordable housing,” he said. “There is going to be affordable housing.”
Mumford, who has more than $100 million in projects under development, said he expects to be finished with Fortune Square by late 2017.
Impact on Red Bank
For those who have been working for the better part of the last decade to save the Fortune House, the project with Mumford is about more than just saving a house.
It’s a chance to memorialize a figure of forgotten import.
“To this day, he’s buried in Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, I believe, with no head marker,” Rogers said. “A generation from now, people will know him.”
But it’s also an opportunity to catalyze development on Red Bank’s sometimes-forgotten west side, a diverse district that Greason said has rarely seen the money reflected in the borough’s hopping downtown.
“Red Bank is one of my great tragedies, because there was once a chance to build a middle class for all people,” he said, adding that the west side was segregated. “I think this will help revitalize the west side of Red Bank.
“You look five years out, 10 years out, 20 years out and you’re going to see people from the middle class moving in here.”