Largest Preservation Fund in American History Invests $3M to Save Black Landmarks
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Recently,  interest has grown in celebrating and commemorating Black history. For example, Juneteenth is increasingly being recognized by state governments as a national holiday across the country, which marks the 1865 anniversary of enslaved people being informed that slavery had ended. Although progress has been made in raising awareness of Black history, many narratives have been whitewashed and reworked, thus narrowing the experiences of Black people. 

The African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund is aiming to change this by preserving African American landmarks and quite literally saving Black history. With $50 million of funding, the Action Fund is the largest preservation effort ever undertaken to support the longevity of African American historic sites. 

“The recipients of this funding exemplify centuries of African American resilience, activism, and achievement. Some of their stories are known, and some are yet untold, said Brent Leggs, executive director of the Action Fund. “Together they help document the true, complex history of our nation. By preserving these places and telling their stories, preservationists can help craft a more accurate American identity and inspire a commitment to justice.” 

Among the landmarks to be preserved are Sapelo Island Cultural and Revitalization Society (Sapelo, Georgia), St. Simon’s African American Heritage Coalition, and the National Negro Opera Company (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania). 

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Philanthropists MacKenzie Scott and Dan Jewett announced a $20 million grant to the Action Fund, which helped double the fund in less than two years. Scott joins this year’s lead funder The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation with additional gifts from The William R. Kenan, Jr. Charitable Trust, President and Mrs. George W. Bush, the Chapman Foundation, and an anonymous donation in memory of Ahmaud Arbery.    

“The Action Fund has become the largest resource in American history dedicated to the preservation of African American architectural landmarks,” said Lonnie Bunch, the first African American and first historian to serve as Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. “These grants will positively impact 40 communities nationwide and result in the creation of a visible, preserved legacy of African American contributions. Through the leadership of Brent Leggs, the Fund is creating a lasting historical record, which demonstrates that African American narratives are integral to our nation and our shared future.”    

Since its inception in 2017 as a response to the conflict in Charlottesville, Virginia, surrounding a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, the Action Fund has supported 105 places through its national grant program for a total investment of $7.3 million.

“We are delighted that the Action Fund continues to affirm the centrality of Black voices and experiences to historical preservation in the United States, and to broaden public awareness of the significance of these landmarks,” said Elizabeth Alexander, president of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. “The 2021 grantees—which range from museums and public libraries to theaters, historic churches, and universities—represent vital cultural sites that enrich our cities, small towns, and rural communities, and that serve as a testament to the fortitude and ingenuity of the African Americans who created them.”