The T. Thomas Fortune House, home to one of America’s first African-American newspaper publishers and coiner of the term ‘African-American’ is among New Jersey’s 10 most endangered historic locales, a statewide conservation group said yesterday.
The inclusion of the house by Preservation New Jersey is the latest in a series of designations granted to the structure at 94 Drs. James Parker Boulevard. It was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976 and to a comparable New Jersey list three years later.
Still, like the designations that came before it, the latest one conveys no special status should the current or a future owner of the property decide to tear it down. And that possibility has Red Bank history buffs on edge because the house is up for sale by its longtime owners, the Vaccarelli family.
“It doesn’t give us any leverage to stop a demolition,” says George Bowden, chairman of the borough’s Historic Preservation Committee. “But the concern is there. This is one we don’t want to go down the tubes.”
The designation was disclosed at a press conference yesterday on the steps of the Statehouse in Trenton. Bowden attended with another commission member, Ed Zipprich.
Also on this year’s list is the vast former Bell Labs research facility in Holmdel, which a developer is in the process of gutting and plans to surround with housing, according to the Star-Ledger.
Though he is little remembered today, even in African-American communities, Timothy Thomas Fortune was among the political thinkers who championed the rights of post-Emancipation blacks. A colleague of W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington, he was also among the co-creators of Afro-American League in Chicago in 1890, a precursor to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Born into slavery in Florida in 1856, Fortune worked at a series of newspaper jobs before starting one of his own, the New York Freeman, in 1884; three years later, it was renamed the New York Age.
From a biographical entry on Fortune in the Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance:
From its outset, the New York Age displayed little tolerance for the ongoing practices of racism and segregation. Fortune was one of the earlier advocates for the desegregation of grade schools in New York. He also calmly suggested that it was both natural and desirable for African Americans to defend themselves against white mob violence.
Fortune was acquainted in the art of provocation. In August 1893, he threatened a duel to the death with the publisher of another newspaper who was visiting in Asbury Park. Download thomas_fortune_duel.pdf
A month later, he “narrowly escaped personal violence,” according to the New York Times, when he was repeatedly shouted down in a churchful of African-Americans gathered in Brooklyn to decry discrimination against an African-American teacher. Download thomas_fortune_shouted_down.pdf
Prior to his death at age 71 in Philadelphia on June 2, 1928, the National Negro Press Association bestowed upon him the honorary title of “Dean of Negro Journalism,” according to the encyclopedia.
The House, on what was once Bergen Place, is a Second Empire-style structure built between 1873 and 1880, according to Bowden. Fortune bought the house in 1901 and owned it until 1915, he says.
One or both of the Vaccarelli brothers, James and John, bought the place in 1918 and with their wives (who were sisters) raised their families there. A family-owned Italian bakery continued in operation until a few years ago, says James’s son, also James Vaccarelli, now a 78-year-old Shrewsbury resident. An older brother, Ray, lived there until his death last June.
In it’s proclamation, Preservation New Jersey issued a call to the borough council, business leaders and others “to find an adaptive reuse for the building, which could become the centerpiece of the spread of revitalization from the downtown to the Westside.”
Preservation New Jersey is the state’s only private, statewide historic advocacy group. Among the members of its board is Mary Lou Strong of Locust, who was active in recent years in an effort to save the Tredwell House in Rumson before it burned to the ground last summer. The house had also been on the endangered list.
Past winners of the “most endangered” label in Monmouth County incldue Fort Hancock at Sandy Hook; the Stone Pony in Asbury Park; and the Asbury Park boardwalk.
The organization has a conference on ‘Sustaining New Jersey’s Legacy’ scheduled for Wednesday, May 23, at Drew University.