By JOHN T. WARD
No sharp elbows were thrown. The words ‘Maple Cove‘ weren’t even mentioned.
In her first working session as a member of Red Bank’s otherwise all-Democrat borough council Wednesday night, Republican Cindy Burnham‘s debut act was to introduce a resolution designating February as T. Thomas Fortune Month in the borough.
The anondyne measure won unanimous approval, and opened up a discussion of where things stand with the house that Fortune lived in a century ago.
“It just kills me” that Red Bank Regional students walk past the house every day but “know nothing” about the activist journalist who lived there, said Burnham, who works as a substitute teacher at the school.
She said designating the month in Fortune’s honor “would be a great thing” in light of the fact that it’s nationally recognized as Black History Month.
Fortune, born a slave, grew into a crusading journalist and publisher as a fierce critic of Jim Crow laws and attitudes. He’s widely credited with popularizing the term “Afro-American” to denote people of African heritage.
Fortune’s home, at 94 Doctors James Parker Boulevard, was known as Maple Hill when he lived there from 1901 to 1911. It’s listed as a National Historic Landmark because of its association with Fortune, who was visited there by Booker T. Washington and other early civil rights luminaries.
Long vacant and deteriorating after years as a private residence and bakery, the house has been the subject of a preservation effort dating to 20007. Last year, it became the subject of renewed speculation that it might be sold and demolished, prompting a renewed preservation effort that envisions turning the structure into a cultural center and community hall.
‘We’re hoping someone will come along with a very big wallet and buy it” so it can be saved and restored, said Councilman Ed Zipprich, who’s been involved in the effort from its early days.
“The borough can’t afford it,” said Mayor Pasquale Menna, who confirmed, in response to a question from Councilman Art Murphy, that the property would come off the tax rolls if it were to be acquired by a non-profit entity.
Sarah Klepner, a leader in the T. Thomas Fortune House Preservation effort, said the group was “negotiating with” the Vaccarelli family, which owns it. She said the group had raised $4,000 in donations in recent months.
“It’ll take a million to fix it,” said Murphy, a homebuilder.
Klepner, a former freelance reporter for redbankgreen, said turning the house into a cultural and community hub would “meet a need that exists anyway” and attract visitors from out of town, boosting Red Bank’s stature.