Dozens of supporters gathered on the front lawn for the opening of the T. Thomas Fortune Cultural Center. Below, a view of the ceremony from inside the restored house. (Photos by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge.)
By JOHN T. WARD
More than a century after the departure of its most famous resident, the T. Thomas Fortune House in Red Bank reopened Thursday as a cultural center dedicated to his mission of advancing civil and human rights.
James Vaccarelli, center, whose family owned the house for decades, was among the first in the door for a tour. Below, Roger Mumford speaks near the plaque denoting the home’s origins as ‘Maple Hall.’ (Photos by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge.)
Fortune, a crusading civil rights journalist who was born into slavery in Florida in 1856, bought the house, then known as Maple Hall, in 1901 and lived there for the next decade, before losing it to lenders.
While there, he was visited by the leading lights of the post-Civil War drive for equal rights for African-Americans, including W.E.B DuBois, Booker T. Washington and Marcus Garvey.
The house, which is believed to date from as early as 1774, served as home in the last century to several generations of the Vaccarelli family, who ran a commercial bakery on the site. Because of its connection to Fortune, the house was entered into the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.
Despite of that designation, the house was crumbling by 2006, attracting the attention of local preservationists. The property had been vacated, and repeated attempts to find a buyer had failed.
On the verge of being bulldozed, it was saved by developer Roger Mumford, who in 2016 convinced the borough zoning board to allow him to build 31 apartments, in the same architectural style of the house, at the rear of the property in order to finance a restoration of Fortune’s onetime home.
Construction on both was completed earlier this year, and Mumford deeded the house to the T. Thomas Fortune Foundation for $1.
At a rain-spritzed ceremony, Gilda Rogers, vice president of the T. Thomas Fortune Foundation, which will run the center as place to celebrate social justice and cultural differences, told several dozen of supporters that with the center established, “I need you to be here for the long haul. I need you to support, donate, volunteer, whatever you can to keep the doors open.”
Mark Fitzsimmons, an architect who helped rally attention to the endangered building’s plight a decade ago, told the audience he considers it a “sacred” site.
The new center, he said, “will resurrect the many truths that should be told abut this nation, its laws and its constitution that should govern all the people and provide civil rights and social justice in our democracy for everyone.”
Among those touring the house were 90-year-old James Vaccarelli of Shrewsbury, who grew up in it, and his niece, Pat Vaccarelli. During the renovation work, she said, Mumford’s crew found a report about the house that she had written when she was in high school, she told redbankgreen.
“A lot of memories. It was always a very happy time here,” she said, noting the spots where her grandfather kept his desk and the Christmas tree would be put up each year. “I’m glad it’s still here.”