The home of pioneering human rights journalist T. Thomas Fortune has been vacant for many years. Below, an undated photo of Fortune, who owned it from 1901 to 1911. (Photo above by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge)
By JOHN T. WARD
Two members of the borough Historic Preservation Committee said the state Department of Environmental Protection, though its Green Acres program, has made a purchase offer to the owners of the crumbling T. Thomas Fortune house on Drs. James Parker Boulevard.
The dollar value of the bid, made about two weeks ago, has not been disclosed, said Gilda Rogers, who heads the nonprofit T. Thomas Fortune Project. The offer was made after the state obtained two appraisals of the property, said Rogers.
State officials could not be immediately contacted for comment Thursday morning. Asked how the Vaccarelli family, the site’s owners, had responded to the offer, Rogers said, “thus far, there has not been a ‘no.'”
Rogers spoke to redbankgreen about the offer shortly before she and fellow HPC member Mark Fitzsimmons made a short presentation to the borough council at its semimonthly meeting Wednesday night.
There, Fitzsimmons asked Mayor Pasquale Menna and the governing body to reaffirm their past support for the preservation of the Fortune house, “whether or not the bid is accepted.”
Councilmembers Ed Zipprich and Cindy Burnham replied that they support the effort. Menna was silent on the issue.
The Fortune house is one of only two National Register of Historic Places sites in New Jersey associated with African-American history, said Rogers — the other being Hinchcliffe Stadium in Paterson, past home to several Negro League baseball teams.
The house won its designation in 1976, and local preservationists launched an effort to buy and preserve the site as a cultural center after it was cited as one of the “Ten Most Endangered” historic sites in New Jersey in 2007.
The state’s involvement means “this could well happen,” Rogers said.
“It’s exciting, because they have the funds” to acquire the property, a goal that has often seemed beyond the reach of the Fortune Project, she said. “They recognize the importance of saving and preserving the house.”
If successful in its bid, the state would own the property, but not manage it, Rogers said. The Fortune Project would presumably take on that role, she said.
For the past 28 months, the group has been raising funds and won a pledge of $100,000 toward its goal; it’s also running an online fund drive, and will hold a “T.Thomas Fortune Birthday Bash” fundraiser at the Two River Theater on October 4 in conjunction with a performance of the August Wilson play “Seven Guitars.”
The project hopes to turn the site into a cultural center that honors not only Fortune but the concepts of tolerance and justice, said Rogers.
Timothy Thomas Fortune, born into slavery in Florida in 1856, became a champion of civil rights and racial integration through his pioneering journalism. He’s often credited with coining the term “African-American.”
Fortune owned the three-story, Second Empire-style house from 1901 to 1911, when it was sold at a sheriff’s sale. During his time in Red Bank, he entertained W.E.B DuBois, Booker T. Washington, Marcus Garvey and other leading lights of the post-Civil War drive for equal rights for African-Americans at the house.
He died in Philadelphia in 1928.
The Vaccarellis lived in the house and operated a bakery there for decades. Last year, they initiated steps that would have led to a demolition, but were thwarted by borough officials over technicalities.