Historic Preservation: Saving African American Spaces Is The New Black Activism

Brent Leggs Feb, 19, 2018

“The past and future merge to meet us here,” Beyoncé tells us in her highly acclaimed visual album, Lemonade. As it happens, her words reveal the crux of America’s current debate over how our collective past is represented in our culture and public spaces. In everything from the musical Hamilton, to the fate of Confederate monuments or sites of uprisings in response to police shootings, the central question of how our history is embodied in our collective culture and landscape has returned with fresh urgency.  

In many ways, this moment of reckoning is long overdue. Over a century ago, the National Association of Colored Women launched a national campaign to save Frederick Douglass’ home of Cedar Hill in Washington DC, thereby inaugurating the Black preservation movement. Cedar Hill, argued their leader Mary B. Talbert, could be “a hallowed spot, where our boys and girls may gather during the years to come, and receive hope, and inspiration, and encouragement to go forth like Douglass, and fight to win.”

But too often since, we have let Mary down. As a people and a nation, we simply have not done enough to amplify the diverse voices, stories, and places that helped shape our present. This deficit carries consequences. “Without a thorough reckoning with the complex and difficult history of our country, especially when it comes to race, we will not be able to overcome intolerance, injustice, and inequality,” Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, said.

And when the past is blanched and distorted through lack of diversity and representation, it affects both our understanding of today’s issues and our capacity to grow in the future.

That’s why it’s time for action. This renewed reckoning with our past has re-galvanized the African American-led activist movement with leaders like actress Phylicia Rashad, Congresswoman Terri Sewell, Cathy Hughes and others to break down barriers and right misconceptions about the American identity. At the National Trust for Historic Preservation, chartered by Congress in 1949 to help tell the full American story, we have launched the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund to help meet the responsibilities of this critical moment.

Courtesy A'LeliaBundles/MadamWalkerFamilyArchive

This Action Fund is a $25 million multi-year effort to tell the full history of Black contributions to our nation and foster truth, racial healing, social justice, and reconciliation. We want to unearth a narrative that expands our understanding and inspires a new generation to advocate for African American historic places. We aim to empower our communities with the tools to prevent the destruction of their historic fabric, as has happened far too often, from “urban renewal” and an undervalued cultural heritage. And we will work to demonstrate how preservation can revitalize disinvested communities while addressing social and economic issues.

We know firsthand that saving historic African American places can enhance our present debates. In Durham, North Carolina, the childhood home of civil rights lawyer Pauli Murray showcases the imbued elegance of vernacular architecture and reveals the activism and scholarship of African American women. Clayborn Temple in Memphis, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led his final campaign at the Sanitation Workers’ March, is a monument to the civil rights movement and the dignity of Black bodies in silent protest. Madam C. J. Walker’s Villa Lewaro estate is a lasting testimony to the entrepreneurial spirit of America’s first self-made woman millionaire. These sites of activism, architecture and achievement are true National Treasures that reflect the stories that shaped us today.

Along with elevating forgotten places, we aim to reveal the hidden, and sometimes willfully obscured, layers of history at all historic sites. At Montpelier, home of president James Madison, the new exhibition and film “The Mere Distinction of Colour” illuminates the impact and legacy of slavery, America’s original sin. Through the power of place, more historic sites and cultural institutions are envisioning innovative forms of community and public history with far-reaching impacts.

This month and every month, we at the National Trust seek to elevate our true history. We feel passionately that Black culture, landscapes, and history matters – that our collective identity matters. By saving African American places, we not only celebrate the tremendous impact that African Americans have made to the life of our nation, we transmit that impact to the present and the future. History shows us that Black women are the vanguards of social change and culture keepers of Black identity. Join us in this renewed effort.

Brent Leggs is the Director of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and an Assistant Clinical Professor at the Graduate Program in Historic Preservation of the University of Maryland.