By Chris Rotolo |
RED BANK – Near the edge of town sits a pile of bricks that are coated in 150 years of dirt, grime and the sands of time.
These bricks were once strewn about a decrepit and dilapidated construction yard on Drs. James Parker Blvd., a historically significant site that was overlooked and forgotten, much like the man who owned a home there, T. Thomas Fortune.
Thanks to the vision of the T. Thomas Fortune Foundation and the efforts of local developer Roger Mumford, some of those bricks have been gathered up and placed at the base of the restored T. Thomas Fortune House, the future location of a cultural center named in the historical figure’s honor.
“I enjoy using my platform to work on creative projects and when I came across this site and learned of the group of people who wished to restore it, as well as their goals for the cultural center, I thought I could help make it a win-win-win situation for all parties involved, including Red Bank,” Mumford said.
“It’s an interesting project because the goals of the cultural center are fundamentally consistent with my own belief system,” Mumford said. “I think there is a tremendous amount of disharmony in this country and I would rather propose a solution and become involved, rather than sit by the side.”
Mumford’s choice to act aligns with the sensibilities of T. Thomas Fortune and his work is revitalizing the legend of a significant local figure and a minimized – if not completely missing – link in the history of the Civil Rights Movement.
“His history is absolutely overshadowed, because he is really the bridge to the modern-day Civil Rights Movement that we know was led by Martin Luther King,” said Gilda Rogers, T. Thomas Fortune Foundation vice president.
On Feb. 24, Rogers helped lead a Foundation-presented event at the Long Branch Public Library titled, “Reading Fortune: A Voice for the Ages.” There group members and local religious leaders read selections of Fortune’s poetry, personal letters and newspaper articles that revealed the true historical significance of the Red Bank resident who was born a slave, but died a revered journalist, political activist and thinker.
“He was a visionary political organizer and really helped open doors for future Civil Rights leaders,” Rogers explained. “He organized people to bring forth the national Afro-American Council, which was the predecessor to the NAACP. He was doing things that, when you pivot to the Civil Rights Movement, they just picked up where he left off.”
A similar event was held at the library in Red Bank on Feb. 21.
Born in 1856 in Jackson County, Florida, Fortune would eventually work as a local news reporter, before attending Howard University and relocating to New York City in 1879. Over the next two decades he would become editor and owner of the “New York Age,” the nation’s leading black newspaper.
While living in Red Bank in 1898, Fortune helped found the National Afro-American Council, which featured such prominent members as Booker T. Washington, famed journalist W. E. B. Du Bois – whose first writing job came from Fortune – and Ida B. Wells, another revered southern journalist whose Memphis printing press and publishing offices were destroyed in 1892 by a mob opposed to her anti-lynching articles.
But Rogers believes Fortune’s longest-lasting contribution to the Civil Rights Movement and modern society was his love for all people. According to her, it’s that sentiment that will be at the heart of the cultural center.
“He was very radical and ahead of his time in the way that he thought, fought and spoke with an obvious love for his own race. But he really had a love for all and fought for all people; not just black people, but anyone who was dealing with any sort of injustice,” Rogers said.
“That’s why I’m so excited for the opening of the cultural center. Because it will be a place that opens its doors to everyone and educates anyone who wants to learn about T. Thomas Fortune and the energy he brought to Red Bank at a very important time in our history.”
The T. Thomas Fortune Cultural Center is expected to open this fall.
This article first appeared in the March 1-8, 2018 print edition of The Two River Times.
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