At their first working session on January 8, 2014, the members of the Red Bank Borough Council unanimously passed a resolution declaring February to be T. Thomas Fortune month in the borough.
The resolution was introduced by Cindy Burnham, who was recently elected to the council. February is nationally designated as Black History Month, and the resolution serves as a formal recognition to a great human rights activist.
Born into slavery, Fortune’s trailblazing rise as a firebrand journalist, publisher and writer rebuked the government’s failed attempt at Reconstruction, which led to the rise of Jim Crow and black code laws. Fortune has been credited with being the bridge to the modern day Civil Rights Movement. In 1880, he formed the Afro American League, which was a pre-curser to the NAACP.
From 1901 to 1911, Fortune resided at the home he called Maple Hill, at 94 West Bergen Avenue (now known as Drs. James Parker Boulevard). While living there, he entertained such black leaders as Booker T. Washington. He also edited the works of Marcus Garvey while living there.
The home is among 55 National Historic Landmarks in the state, and only one of two NHLs associated with African American history. In 2007, Councilman Ed Zipprich nominated the TTF home to the Preservation New Jersey list of 10 most endangered sites.
“We’re hoping someone will come along with a very big wallet and buy it,” said Councilman Zipprich.
In 2013, the T. Thomas Fortune Project, which consists of a committee of concerned citizens and experts in the field of historic preservation, was formed to raise funds toward the purchase of the home. The committee’s nonprofit lead agent is the Red Bank Men’s Club Foundation. It has held fundraising campaigns and community forums to bring awareness to the plight of the home and to get the community involved in the cause.
“Our concerted effort is to preserve and restore the home to serve as a grand cultural community center,”said Gilda Rogers, who is the chairperson of the programming committee of the T. Thomas Fortune Project. “We’d like to see it become a vibrant showcase of Red Bank history and a destination.”
The committee’s Project Director, Peter Primavera, is a 30-year veteran in the field of historic preservation, with extensive experience working with National Historic Landmarks . The home is currently owned by the Vacarelli family, and the committee is in negotiations with the family. The home has been vacant since 2006.
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