Preserving African American Historic Places

Posted on: November 16th, 2012 by Brent Leggs
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In 2004 my job as research assistant for the Kentucky Heritage Council was to inventory Rosenwald Schools in Kentucky. I traveled across the state to document what were the most advanced, architecturally designed school buildings constructed for African American students between 1917 and 1932. This innovative school construction program was developed by the founder of Tuskegee University, Booker T. Washington, and was partially funded by philanthropist Julius Rosenwald, president of Sears Roebuck & Company. During this survey process, I learned that my mother and father both attended Rosenwald Schools in rural Kentucky.

I was always excited when I found a Rosenwald School standing. Many times, however, nothing was left. It was as if these places had never existed; only landscapes remained, rich with memories of students walking to school. In many cases entire communities had disappeared. People had left rural areas for the big city, leaving significant parts of the history of African Americans behind. I realized these stories would be all but erased from memory if we didn’t act to protect them.

My experience has shown me that the preservation of historic African American sites often happens on an informal basis. Each time someone gives to a church’s building fund, that person is helping rebuild historic fabric. Whenever volunteers mow the grass at a historic cemetery, they are conserving an important cultural landscape. When relatives gather at the family farm for a reunion or to celebrate Juneteenth (June 19, 1865, when emancipation was widely announced), they are honoring their past.

To be sure, some significant sites associated with African American history are formally recognized and serve as permanent reminders about our ancestors and their journey in America. For instance, the African Meeting House in Boston relates the story of the abolitionist movement in America. The Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated, is a monument to the civil rights movement.

But relatively few places that are important to or representative of the African American experience enjoy this level of recognition.

At the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tenn., visitors can tour the Lorraine Hotel, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was killed. | Credit: National Civil Rights Museum

Preserving a historic building, neighborhood, or landscape takes more than just a connection to place or a love of history. It requires a basic understanding of preservation tools, nonprofit management, strategic planning, real estate, business practices, project management, and finance.

Why Preserve?

Why should we care about historic African American theaters, churches, schools, residences, gardens, neighborhoods, main streets, burial grounds, parks, hotels, juke joints, and recording studios?

African American scholar James Horton says that a single visit to a history site makes a life once lived real. (“On-Site Learning: The Power of Historic Places,” Cultural Resources Management 23, No. 8-2000, page 5.) For instance, visitors can walk up the narrow and crooked steps to the slave galleries inside St. Augustine’s Church in New York City and see where African Americans were forced to sit during religious services for much of the 19th century. At this place, visitors can experience tangible, authentic history.

Preservation contributes much to a forgetful society. It empowers black youth by revealing historical themes besides slavery, including entrepreneurship, civil rights, entertainment, sports, education, and political activism. The site where hip-hop was founded in the Bronx brings life to the story of a revolution in music. Seeing firsthand the homes of civil rights activists and the Alabama churches that served as their gathering places reminds a younger generation how a nonviolent movement changed this nation.

By preserving historic sites that tell the story of African Americans in this country we draw attention to the contributions of both ordinary and extraordinary people. Such stories might otherwise be lost because urban renewal and the out-migration of blacks destroyed or led to the abandonment of many African American communities. By saving African American landmarks we can stimulate revitalization and foster interest in places that today seem to exist without history or meaning. Indeed these places can serve as anchors reviving our sense of community.

Early and Ongoing Efforts

We can take inspiration from earlier preservation champions and their accomplishments.

The first site associated with the black experience in America to receive recognition at the national level was the birthplace of agricultural scientist George Washington Carver in Diamond, Mo., dedicated as a National Monument in 1943. Other sites soon followed, such as the site where Booker T. Washington was born into slavery, a National Monument near Hardy, Va., protected in 1956; Tuskegee University, a National Historic Landmark designated in 1965; and Hampton University listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1969.

In the 1960s, grassroots activists new to preservation established the first wave of historic preservation activity in the black community. Without any formal training in historic preservation, these champions saved many African American historic places through an organic learning process, resilience, and unwavering commitment for their mission.

The Weeksville Heritage Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., serves as an arts and cultural center for the surrounding community. | Credit: Weeksville Heritage Center

For instance, when community activist Joan Maynard learned in the late 1960s about Weeksville, a once-vibrant but later forgotten African American village in Brooklyn founded in the 1830s, she felt compelled to revive some of its buildings as tangible reminders of its people and their accomplishments. She was motivated by the desire to instill pride in current African American residents in the area, especially young people. Marshaling help from students, community groups, and preservationists, she accomplished her goal when three houses of Weeksville opened to the public in 2005. The Weeksville Heritage Center she once led continues to expand and thrive.

Since then a new wave of African American preservationists has gotten involved in saving places all across America. These new advocates include retirees, architects, nonprofit consultants, historians, and recent graduates of historic preservation programs. They are advancing preservation by establishing networks that foster cross-mentoring and stronger professional relationships.

Several organizations are working to identify African American sites in different regions of the country. The African American Heritage Preservation Foundation was established in 1994 as a resource group for organizations mostly in the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast. In at least seven states, all-volunteer commissions or committees work in partnership with state government agencies to identify black heritage sites within their state. Other nonprofit efforts devoted to the protection of African American historic places include the Florida African American Heritage Network as well as dedicated programs of several statewide and local nonprofit preservation organizations.

In fact, from Maine to California, individuals and nonprofit organizations are working to protect and restore African American landmarks and historical artifacts. They are revitalizing our historic neighborhoods, conserving landscapes rich in beauty or cultural meaning, showcasing valuable collections, researching and documenting places, interpreting our history in new and creative ways, and striving toward financial sustainability and their own organizational longevity.

Yet there is still much to be done.

Challenges

The 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., the site of a racially motivated bombing in 1963, remains an active congregation in the Birmingham Civil Right District. | Credit: Jason Wallis for Jason Wallis Photography

Preservation is rewarding, but challenging, work. Some challenges will especially come into play when dealing with African American sites; others are typical for all types of preservation projects.

There is a common perception among the general public that historic preservation is only about saving sites associated with rich white men’s history. Historically, there’s truth in that perception; preservation began as an attempt to memorialize the founding fathers. In the past few decades, however, more focus has been on sites that tell the story of all Americans—African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, Asian Pacific Islander Americans, women, and gays and lesbians.

African American heritage is often found in small, unadorned structures. For the most part these are not as grand or visually impressive as traditionally recognized places such as the homes of political leaders or wealthy industrialists. Many are in poor condition or have been extensively altered. In spite of this, they can offer a tangible and rich reminder of African American heritage.

Often the individuals most interested in saving African American sites are new to preservation. They work to raise concern within a black community that is just learning the value of preservation and also cultivate broader support through conventional means.

And, as is true with many preservation projects, there are the barriers of time and money. This type of work takes patience and persistence. It can take years, sometimes 10 or more, to bring a building back to life and see it maintained in productive use. It requires a financially sustainable organization with an effective board. Leaders, staff, and volunteers must remain committed to their preservation project and stay focused on the long-term goals.

Preserving African American Historic Places

To help local advocates preserve African American historic sites, especially those individuals new to preservation, National Trust has published a basic primer, Preserving African American Historic Places. This 24-page publication introduces the world of historic preservation and explains some of the key players and procedures that make preservation happen. It presents an overview of traditional preservation networks and their roles, offers tips on how to get preservation underway in your community, and looks at the various legal and financial tools that help protect historic properties. There are a variety of approaches to preserving historic places and each one requires different levels of expertise, resources, and commitment. Because there is no one-size-fits-all method, this booklet includes six case studies to illustrate various strategies for preserving and honoring historic places associated with African American history. Send an e-mail to bleggs[at]savingplaces.org to order your free copy or get the PDF here.

About Brent Leggs

Brent Leggs is a historic preservation professional in the Washington Field Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and a Harvard Loeb Fellow.

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