Friday, July 12, 2013

Saving a piece of journalism history: the Thomas Fortune house

A large, century-old house on Red Bank's Drs. James Parker Boulevard wouldn't seem to be worthy of much attention, except for two facts. First, it stands vacant, on a sizable piece of land ripe for development. Second, and more importantly, it's a National Historic Landmark that's in danger of being lost, along with the opportunity to tell the story of T. Thomas Fortune.

I first learned about Fortune from our friends Peter Primavera and Gordon Bond at Garden State Legacy, who are spearheading the effort to save the house from demolition. Their zeal piqued my curiousity: why made this little-known individual so important that his house warrants recognition and preservation?

T. Thomas Fortune
What I discovered was an accomplished publisher and civil rights activist who contributed not just to the cause of African-American equality, but to the development and advancement of issues-based journalism. He founded and ran the largest and most influential black newspaper of his day, arguably setting the standard for advocacy journalism.

The story of Timothy Thomas Fortune starts in Florida, where he was born into slavery in 1856. Coming of age during the Reconstruction Era, he got a first-hand view of the rise and fall of black influence in government and public life when his father Emanuel won a seat in the Florida House of Representatives.

Young Thomas spent a great deal of time in the Florida statehouse during his father's tenure, even serving as a Senate page. There's nothing quite like being in the belly of the beast if you want to understand exactly how government works, and he got quite an education in Southern politics. While several blacks had been elected to office in the post-war years, their efforts to gain true influence and change met with little success due to sanctioned discrimination in the halls of government. Longstanding prejudice among whites led to the eventual banishment of most black elected officials in Florida, including Emanuel Fortune.

Even as he was learning the realities of government, Thomas was spending time in printing shops and newspaper offices, picking up writing and publishing skills. Those talents stood him in good stead when he moved to Washington, DC to study law at Howard University. He worked his way through school at a black newspaper, earning a reputation as a talented writer with a distinct voice. He'd found his niche.

At the age of 24, Fortune set out on his own as a journalist, believing that the nation's black population needed a national forum. Moving to New York City, he founded a series of newspapers, including The New York Globe and the New York Freeman, later named The New York Age. He wrote broadly on interracial relations and the advancement of African Americans, advocating equal educational opportunity and women's rights. "To tell a man he is free when he has neither money nor the opportunity to make it," he wrote, "is simply to mock him."

Unlike many of the general circulation newspapers of his day, Fortune's puiblications avoided sensationalism in favor of intelligent, reasoned editorial content and high journalistic standards. He was well recognized for his ability to encourage dialogue by balancing opposing views, and is credited with giving blacks a vehicle to discuss social issues and protest inequity. Noted journalists including Ida B. Wells and Victoria Earle Matthews started their careers working at the Age.

Fortune's work atracted the attention of Tuskegee Institute president Booker T. Washington, who hired the journalist as a speechwriter and collaborated with him on several books despite their sometimes divergent opinions. Washington also provided financial support to the Age, helping to keep the newspaper afloat during difficult times. Nonetheless, Washington neglected to credit Fortune for most of his contributions, leading to a degree of friction between the two.

The Fortune house today, awaiting preservation.
Courtesy Peter Primavera.
It's not clear why Fortune decided to settle his family in Red Bank, but his move out from New York in 1901 reflected a growing trend of affluent blacks settling in the suburbs. Securing a mortgage from one of New York's first African-American banks, he purchased a 12-room Second-Empire style home located conveniently near the train station. He commuted to the city once a week, preferring to write and edit at home. The location also proved convenient to visitors; Washington often came to Red Bank to meet with Fortune.

Ideological differences between the two men ultimately led to a split, with catastrophic results for the journalist. Unhappy with Fortune's more strident public pronouncements, Washington lost faith in his writer and withdrew his financial support for the Age. Already suffering from severe depression, Fortune had a nervous breakdown in 1907 and lost the Red Bank house to foreclosure eight years later. While he eventually recovered and began working again, he never quite regained the level of influence he'd once held within the community. He died in Philadelphia in 1928.

To characterize Fortune solely as an African-American leader would be to minimize his broader role as an activist publisher and commentator. He demonstrated the power of journalism to provoke debate and influence public policy among the diverse factions of communities others might see as being of one mind. Black leaders, whether separatist or integrationist in belief, sought and valued his counsel. The issues he championed -- equal rights and equal opportunity for women and minorities -- continue to be debated today, and scores of media outlets and journalists now play the roles that Fortune and his newspapers established in his day. Every one of us, regardless of ethnic or racial origin, benefit from the example he set.

The group working to save the Fortune house has established a Facebook page to keep supporters updated on the progress of their campaign. Reflecting Fortune's interests and achievements as well as the history of the larger Red Bank community, they're building a broad coalition to widen awareness and advocacy for the site. Post-acquisition plans are still in development. The challenge now is to save the house and with it, a way to build awareness of Fortune's legacy.


2 comments:

  1. Thank you for this piece! As a born & raised Red Bank-ean, one of the most disappointing changes in the town for me since the 1990s has been a disregard for and lack of preserving pieces of its' past. I first saw your piece via a friend on FB who lives in Central/Southwest NJ and I've in turned also shared it there and on twitter. I hope it continues to be shared and results in many positive and good things for the Thomas Fortune House!

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    1. Have no fear As a Committee Member of the TTF Project, I can tell you everything is being done to save the house Visit our website, thomasfortunehouse.weebly.com to learn more

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