By Walter Greason
African-American history remains a marginal field within the global institution of professional history. Despite the powerful transformation of world society as a result of the American Civil Rights Movement (1954-1968) and the international struggle to end South African apartheid (1960-1994), most societies do not teach the stories about white supremacy, pan-Africanism, and the connections between racial slavery, industrialization, and colonialism. This void is especially pernicious in the ways urban history evolves. Carl Nightingale’s intervention in documenting and interpreting the transnational nature of racial segregation in the modern world raised an empirical standard to correct this willful neglect. The people, places, and events erased by a century of historical oversights are too numerous to name here, but a small group of local activists struck a blow against this pattern when they succeeded (against significant odds) in the rehabilitation of the T. Thomas Fortune House in Red Bank, New Jersey. Fortune and his family lived in the house known as Maple Hall from 1901 until 1911. The National Historic Landmark officially reopened to the public on May 30, 2019, following a ribbon-cutting ceremony the week before.
Fortune was arguably the most militant voice for racial equality in the last two decades of the nineteenth century. In the wake of Reconstruction, he published a series of newspapers that fueled a sense of urgency in Black communities as they pursued the promise of freedom, despite the rising tide of violence in support of Jim Crow laws. Born in Marianna, Florida, in 1856, Fortune was a scion of a politically-active family in the state. Fortune’s father participated in the 1868 Florida Constitutional Convention and was elected to Florida House of Representatives later that year. Fortune’s family were leaders during the years following the Civil War until the Democratic Party forced them to flee the region. Fortune briefly attended Howard University to study law before deciding that journalism would help African Americans achieve their goals more rapidly. His words inspired leaders like Booker T. Washington, Mary Church Terrell, Lucy Parsons, and Frances E.W. Harper. His outlets published early works by W.E.B. DuBois and Ida B. Wells-Barnett. President Theodore Roosevelt named him an envoy to the Philippines at the peak of his power in 1903. Fortune endured years of personal and professional setbacks. He battled malaria, alcoholism, and depression, lost control of the New York Age, and became estranged from his family by 1908. Following this difficult period, Fortune joined Marcus Garvey in the production of the Negro World newspaper in 1923. Illness overcame him in 1928, and he died in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Fortune’s strident criticism of white supremacy alienated him from the Tuskegee Machine, especially as he lost control over his newspaper network in 1907. The rise of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the subsequent emergence of the “New Negro” and the Harlem Renaissance combined with a studied campaign to erase Fortune’s impact on the struggle for racial justice between 1880 and 1910. The prominence of Booker T. Washington, in particular, served to obscure even black scholars’ academic engagement with Fortune’s work for more than six decades. When Emma Lou Thornbrough published T. Thomas Fortune: Militant Journalist in 1972, it opened an opportunity to explore his life and legacy that continued unmet into the early twenty-first century. The most notable impact of this invisibility was the steady deterioration of his beloved home in Red Bank, Maple Hall. After his family sold it in late 1910, it soon became a local bakery for almost seventy years. When the bakery closed, the family acknowledged the existence of the landmark status, but did nothing to protect and preserve the site for thirty years.
The only professional historical analysis of Red Bank, New Jersey, is my book Suburban Erasure. The archival work supporting that analysis showed that the community was rigidly segregated into a white community on the east side near the Navesink River and a Black and immigrant community on the west side along Shrewsbury Avenue. At the start of the twentieth century, Fortune’s acquisition of Maple Hall reflected the prominence of the west side as arguably the most affluent Black neighborhood in rural New Jersey. Census records show dozens of highly-skilled workers with several prosperous small businesses, including newspapers, smithies, and dance halls. Fortune’s impact manifested in institutions that supported the early career of William “Count” Basie and a dedicated group of civil rights organizations led across four generations by Dr. James Parker, Sr. and Dr. James Parker, Jr. At the heart of the analysis is the importance of connecting historical data to community activism, especially in the context of metropolitan planning and urban design. In 2009, local activist Gilda Rogers pulled together a small coalition of interested neighbors to save the T. Thomas Fortune House. Empowered by the work in Suburban Erasure, the coalition raised thousands of dollars and attracted national attention by 2015.
As a result, real estate developer Roger Mumford took an interest in the project in 2016. Approaching the members of the Fortune project, he proposed the purchase of the property, the rezoning of the lot, and the absorption of the total house rehabilitation costs. His proposal won the support of the project volunteers and local civil rights leaders, but the team had to persuade the local planning and zoning board. The idea required more than thirty variances and innovative, expensive tactics to remediate environmental issues on the site. Local critics emphasized that the town and state should assert greater responsibility in the oversight of the rehabilitation. In the end, it was a brief presentation about the history embodied by Fortune’s work and legacy that secured the final votes for approval. Mumford meticulously rehabilitated a site facing imminent collapse. He also built an apartment complex on the same lot to attract new residents to the long-segregated, west side neighborhood. Throughout the process of restoring the site and creating the new building, critics continued to find fault with claims of gentrification and concerns that market-rate leasing could never work in this community. Over the longer term, the questions about how the site will preserve African-American history in service to an agenda of racial justice remain at the core of the T. Thomas Fortune Foundation’s mission. Its commitment to continuously attracting new capital investment to the efforts that will promote inclusive development has few parallels in urban history.
Since the publication of Kenneth Jackson’s Crabgrass Frontier, urban historians have opened new areas of inquiry into understanding suburbanization in works like Lizabeth Cohen’s A Consumers’ Republic and Robert Fishman’s Bourgeois Utopias. Since 2000, David M.P. Freund, Becky Nicolaides, Willow Lung-Amam, Mary Corbin Sies, Thomas Sugrue, Kevin Kruse, Marcia Chatelain, Andrew Wiese, Nancy Kwak, and Nathan D.B. Connolly have offered mighty contributions to better understanding cities, suburbs, and rural areas as parts of global, metropolitan history. The success of the T. Thomas Fortune Foundation and Cultural Center, based on a steady commitment to public, suburban history, shows that it is possible to redefine municipal, state, and federal priorities to value African-American history in ways that can transform both the academy and public policy. Instead of states and municipalities rewarding private developers for gentrifying neighborhoods and displacing working families, this project shows ways that partnerships with community activists can use public and private resources more effectively. Moreover, the power of this work to win the support of private capital offers a range of new possibilities to create a just and inclusive world economy in this century. Such an achievement would be an appropriate monument to the life and work of T. Thomas Fortune, a champion of life and liberty for all people.
The Cultural Center is now open Thursday through Sunday every week from noon until 5 p.m. It offers a monthly calendar of events in addition to a growing list of community education initiatives. The Fortune Center is located at 94 Drs. James Parker Boulevard, Red Bank, New Jersey, 07701. For more information (and to donate), please visit www.tthomasfortuneculturalcenter.org. You can also follow The Fortune Center’s work on Twitter (@TThomasFortune9) and (@t.thomasfortunehouse).
Walter Greason is among the most prominent historians, educators, and urbanists in the United States. He has spent the past 30 years speaking to audiences in dozens of states, on over 100 college and high school campuses, at dozens of professional and academic conferences, and to community groups across the country. His work is available every day on Twitter, @worldprofessor.
Featured image (at top): View of main facade, T. Thomas Fortune House, 94 West Bergen Place, Red Bank, Monmouth County, NJ, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress