Originally featured in the July/August 2021 Issue of Vision & Purpose LifeStyle Magazine
Written By Seth E. Washington
Opened in 2019, the T. Thomas Fortune Cultural Center, in Red Bank, NJ is located in the historic home of the newspaper publisher and pioneering activist of the same name. The Cultural Center's Co-Founder Gilda Rogers talks about reestablishing Fortune's home and legacy.
SW: Who is Timothy Thomas Fortune?
Gilda Rogers (GR): He was the founding member of a Black political organization called the National Afro-American League, with 27 chapters across the country. This predated the Niagara Movement which is the predecessor to the NAACP.
The New York Age was a paramount newspaper in the African American community that Fortune founded in 1887 and used as a bully pulpit to talk about race. He spoke truth to power, he did not fear white politicians or anyone really. So that was Timothy Thomas Fortune.
SW: What initially drew your attention to the house in Red Bank, NJ where Fortune lived with his wife Carrie in the early 1900s?
GR: I've been on a 21 year journey with T. Thomas Fortune. It was divinely orchestrated, I really believe.
I was first introduced to his name when I was working as the managing editor for the City News, an African American weekly newspaper in Newark, and in the year 2000 we won The T. Thomas Fortune Award from the Garden State Association of Black Journalists. I had no idea who this person was.
In 2006, the dwelling itself drew my attention. I would ride past the house which was abandoned at this time. It was boarded up and I would look at it and say, "Wow, what a lovely home". Even in its worst condition, you could tell that, during its time, it must have been pretty special.
They had placed the house on the 10 Most Endangered Historic Sites of the state. A gentleman by the name of George Bowden, who was then the Red Bank Historic Preservation Commission Chairperson, approached me and said, "Gilda, do you know who used to live in this house? Then said the name, "T. Thomas Fortune." I'm thinking that this is pretty unbelievable.
SW: So the house was scheduled for demolition even while it was on the historic registry?
GR: When people hear the words historic and national registry, we think it comes with some kind of protection. It does not. Now that we've acquired the home, we put what is called a historic easement on the house so that it is protected from being demolished
SW: Gilda Rogers and Roger Mumford: The Black Curator of Culture meets the White Real Estate Developer?
GR: The state of New Jersey was willing to buy the property. The family that owned the house, rejected the state's offer. We were back at square zero. Two days later Roger Mumford sent me an email. He just said, "I would like to talk to you about the T. Thomas Fortune House." I'd never seen this man in my life.
At our meeting, Roger said, "I know how African American people have been treated in this country." He also felt like he wanted to do something that would bring people together. So, he proposed, "What if I purchase the property, restore it, rehabilitate it and deed it back to your organization for one dollar?" I said, "OK", but I left his office feeling skeptical.
Two days later he asked me to come back to his office again. He'd taken our rendering of what the restored house would look like and made it into Fortune Square, featuring the house along with condominiums in the rear, designed with a facade in the style of the T. Thomas Fortune house. I said to myself, "Wow this guy is really serious!"
SW: Were you concerned about getting approval at the city hearing?
GR: There was a hearing at Borough Hall, people were in opposition. I think that I felt good because the hearing was on my mother's birthday. Roger had his strategy so tight that he could not be denied. He had urban planners and traffic control people there. He prepared research to let the town know how this would work. It was a unanimous approval by the zoning board.
SW: Talk about the concept for the interior space?
GR: T. Thomas Fortune popularized the term Afro-American. He said Afro- American represents where we come from as a people. We wanted visitors to walk into this space and know that it belonged to a Black man, a Black family. We did it on our own. One of our board members who was on the team, a white woman, suggested that we use African fabric to reupholster the Victorian era furniture that had been donated to us. I couldn't be more proud of us.
SW: Is the Cultural Center having the impact that you thought it would?
GR: Yes, I'm going to say it is. In the Carrie Fortune Research Library, named after Fortune's wife, we have some really rare books that you will not find in your average library. We have an archivist who maintains it and we would like to see this become a mini Schomberg.
We've programmed Summer enrichment for teachers and for individuals, as well, to emphasize the significance of teaching social justice to create a more democratic society. When covid happened, we had to shut down. I feel very strongly that this summer will be good for us.
SW: Who is Gilda Rogers?
GR: Before moving to Red Bank, NJ I lived in Rahway but I grew up in Elizabeth. Hampton, VA is my birthplace. In the 4th grade, schools became integrated and I was bused to an all white, Virginia school district. The students weren't mean, it was the teachers.
I remember going on a trip to Colonial Williamsburg and had enough sense to know that Black people had been enslaved, but back then, the site didn’t portray slavery. It was this beautiful colonial environment and setting that was picture perfect. I remember asking my teacher, Mrs. Holland, "Where are the slaves?" and she shushed me, like I had done something wrong. I'd like to say that's where it all started. My mother said, "I want you to know, this is an experiment. They want to see if you are as smart or smarter than the white kids. You have to go to that school, you have to show them." That year in Virginia was transformative for me, it all came together with education and history.
The T. Thomas Fortune Cultural Center is currently open from 1:00pm-5:00pm on Saturdays and Sundays. Visit the website: www.tthomasfortuneculturalcenter.org
Seth Washington writes about performing arts for V&P Magazine and brings a first-hand appreciation of the art spectrum.
As a very active spoken word artist and master of ceremonies, his performance work routinely partners him with the kinds of musicians, singers dancers and other creative souls that he writes about.
During a previous period along his aesthetic path, Washington also captured 35mm film portraits and performance photos of jazz, rock and hip hop entities including national ,as well as, local DC area artists.