A More Perfect Union: Towards a More Inclusive History, and a Preservation Movement that Looks Like America
Stephanie K. Meeks at The Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change
I want to talk today about our efforts to build a more inclusive preservation movement, one that recognizes all the facets of our diverse history, and helps enable all Americans to see themselves in our collective story.
But before I begin, let me thank all the good friends of the National Trust here today, and all the members of the preservation movement, who are taking this journey with us.
We have advisors and Board members, including our chair, Marita Rivero. Also the Board of our National Main Street Center and many attendees to our National Main Street Conference, also kicking off in Atlanta today. Some of our good friends and partners from the National Park Service are here as well, including Superintendent Judy Forte, who manages the Martin Luther King Jr. Historic Site.
We also have local preservationists, volunteers, elected officials – including Fulton County Commissioner Joan Garner and City Councilman Kwanza Hall, both of whom have been instrumental in our work with Sweet Auburn Works.
To all of you and many more, thank you for being involved, and helping us to forge a movement that is leading, problem-solving, proactive, and people-focused. And, if you are not yet involved, come join us!
And I especially want to recognize and thank our hosts today here at the King Center. It is an honor to speak here this afternoon, particularly as we remember the 47th anniversary of Dr. King’s passing this week.
Thank you for all the work you do, each and every day, to preserve the legacy, inspiration, and powerful moral philosophy of Dr. King – against racism and injustice, and on behalf of non-violence, economic opportunity, and the beloved community that we should all strive for. Thank you.
Let me begin with a story.
As president and CEO of the Trust, I am blessed to have the opportunity to visit historic places all over the country. But, earlier this year, I attended the dedication of a small historic site that was particularly special to me.
My family and I live in Falls Church, Virginia, outside of Washington DC. And in January, I got the chance to speak at the commemoration of the Tinner Hill Historic Site, right in our small community.
That site was where, 100 years ago, Falls Church residents, led by Joseph Tinner and Dr. E.B. Henderson, met to organize and protest against the proposed segregation of their community – our community.
The all-white town council had passed a law forcing all black residents to live in one quadrant of the town, even if their homes and property were elsewhere in the city.
So those who met in Tinner Hill a century ago formed the Colored Citizens Protection League to fight the new segregation law. They started a letter writing campaign and supported a suit to prevent the town from forcing families to move.
And they won! Two years later, in a landmark case, the Supreme Court found laws like this unconstitutional, and so it was never enforced, even though amazingly it was on the books until the 1990’s.
It may not seem like it now, with highways and the Metro connecting us to Washington, but in 1915, Falls Church was a rural, agricultural community. The families there were in many ways on their own.
They took enormous risks to stand up for their rights, and for basic justice, in Falls Church. And they laid the foundation for what became the first rural chapter of the NAACP.
This is an inspiring story that should be told. It reminds us that the struggle for justice, civil rights, and the fundamental values in our Bill of Rights – a struggle that continues to this day – took place, not just in cities like Selma and Montgomery – but in cities and communities all across America.
It helps us to recognize that the progress we have made on these critical issues only happened because Americans of a different time took huge risks, right where they lived, to secure social justice and equality. Their struggle made all the difference.
And it shows us that, to achieve the progress we still have to make on civil rights, we all have to do our part as well. Whether it’s 1915 or 2015, we all have to raise our voices against bigotry and injustice, whenever we see it in our communities.
You won’t find Tinner Hill in many history books. But this is such an important story. And it just one of many in the rich history of our nation. These places connect us to the generations who came before us. They remind us we are part of a long continuum of American experience, and they help illuminate the stories and struggles of our present.
To take a place that is more well known, earlier this month Americans came together on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama to commemorate the anniversary of a march that galvanized the nation toward justice – one also brilliantly captured in the movie Selma last year.
The courage and conviction of the marchers for civil rights, the venom and brutality of white massive resistance, the quiet, unassailable dignity and awesome power of non-violence – they are all embodied by that bridge now.
Fifty years after that dark and bloody day in Selma, we are assuredly closer to the America that Dr. King envisioned for us. One where the simple truth of our Declaration rings out in every corner of our country: “We hold these truths to be self-evident – that all men are created equal.”
We now have a two-term, African-American president. Two of the last four Secretaries of State have been black, and three of the last five have been women. A fifth of the United States Congress and a third of the Supreme Court are female – which is still far too low but better than we’ve seen. We have a Martin Luther King Monument and, starting next year, a National Museum of African-American History and Culture on the National Mall.
As a true American hero, Congressman John Lewis, put it a few weeks ago on that fateful bridge – and let’s hope one day the Pettus Bridge is the John Lewis Bridge! – “When people tell me nothing has changed, I say come walk in my shoes and I will show you change!”
At the same time, one need only glance at the front pages to see that the struggles and discords of that time persist.
In cities all over America, distrust persists between communities of color and local law enforcement. We see clear institutional racism at work in places like Ferguson. We see a Voting Rights Act that is once again under siege.
As Dr. King once said, “one of the sure signs of maturity is the ability to rise to the point of self criticism.” And we have to be clear-eyed about the many, many ways, in the year 2015, we still fall short of Dr. King’s Dream.
For too long, one of those areas has been our field of historic preservation.
For decades, many voices were not represented within the traditional boundaries of preservation. Antebellum plantations elided over the stories of enslaved people who worked the land there. Western forts had no information about the Native American societies and cultures that were displaced. Mansions were saved, the tenements often forgotten.
In short, important stories from our past have too often been overlooked.
And this is vitally important. Because protecting diverse places helps reframe our American story in a way that does justice to all its participants. And it helps us to recognize that we are part of a greater whole. It brings us closer to the "beloved community" Dr. King envisioned for America.
I think of the example of Women’s History. As you know, we are now reaching the end of Women’s History Month – which used to be Women’s History Week! And even that Week was an improvement of the old days.
It used to be, when you picked up a US history textbook, the only women in its pages were First Ladies. There were maybe a few outliers: Susan B. Anthony or Harriet Tubman or Amelia Earhart or Sacajawea.
But otherwise, the contributions of millions of American women were completely overlooked from the American story. The only women who were deemed important were the ones who had “married well.” What a narrow and limiting aspiration for women to look up to! But all that began to change in the 1970’s, when a new generation of historians worked to restore the stories and struggles of women to our national fabric.
We re-discovered that women led the boycotts that fomented the American Revolution, that they formed the backbone of the antislavery cause, that they powered the productive engine that helped America win World War II.
We still have a ways to go, of course, but we are closer now to a history that incorporates and recognizes the many contributions of American women, and that gives us a place in the story that is more than just “keeping home.”
Dr. King himself wrote passionately for a more inclusive history in his final 1967 book, Where Do We Go From Here -- Chaos or Community?
In that book, he deplored, quote, "America's penchant for ignoring the Negro, making him invisible and making his contributions insignificant."
He then told the stories of overlooked African-Americans like Dr. Charles Drew, who first separated and stored blood plasma, and Crispus Attucks, the first man to die in the American Revolution.
He writes of how he wept for the black children "denied a knowledge of their heritage" and the white children "who, through daily miseducation, are taught that the Negro is an irrelevant entity in American society."
What all should realize, King argued, is that "the wealth of cultural and technological progress in America is a result of the commonwealth of inpouring contributions.”
He is of course right. So, as a nation, we need a diverse history that includes the stories, and recognizes the contributions, of all our people.
And it is not just about finding role models in the past. It is about understanding the very real struggles we still grapple with as a nation.
We cannot understand the current debate about immigration without looking to how the same story played out in 1840 and 1880 and 1920.
And we cannot understand what’s happening in Ferguson unless we know about the struggles in Selma and Montgomery and Atlanta and dozens, hundreds, of other American cities, including my home of Falls Church.
Across America, we still have not fully attained that more comprehensive understanding of our past that Dr. King strove for, particularly when it comes to preserving places that represent stories from our diverse history. When I became president of the National Trust in 2010, I learned that only eight percent of the 86,000 listings on the National Register of Historic Places, and only three percent of our 2,500 National Landmarks, represent women and racially and ethnically diverse places.
These numbers are by the National Park Service’s own accounting, and to their credit, they have been working to address this shortfall in a number of ways. And they have made some impressive strides in recent years.
Also, these stats should be higher when one takes into account the layers of history at many sites. So along with adding more diverse places, the Park Service is encouraging deeper dives into the full history of those listed.
But I mention the 8% because it is their self-reported number, and it underscores the significant work we have to do.
I should say, one of the reasons we have even made it this far is because of the important work done by state historic preservation offices across the country, led by Fred Williamson and Elizabeth Lyon, a Georgia state officer who is here today. In the 1990’s, Liz and Fred worked hard to put this problem front and center. Thank you for helping to lead this charge.
As it is, we will be a majority non-white nation by 2043 –and women are a majority of the population now! And we have to do a better job of telling the story of all Americans, not just the wealthy white men of yesteryear.
Right now, many communities still feel their stories have not been told, and the places they care about have not received the attention they deserve.
And because the traditional preservation movement was slow to help in the past, they have been working on their own to save these places, and restore neighborhoods and Main Streets across America.
At the Trust, we want to support these efforts, and build a more inclusive movement -- one that engages people from all backgrounds, and works with them to save and revitalize the places that matter to everyone.
So we’re working on this in a number of ways.
First, we are working to expand the scope of historic preservation, so that it includes more overlooked places. That is why half of our National Treasures – our signature initiative at the Trust, a revolving portfolio of over fifty and counting threatened places of national significance – tell diverse stories. Among these National Treasures are places like Joe Frazier’s gym, a modest, three-story brick building in Philadelphia, where the gold medal winner at the 1964 Olympics and later Heavyweight Champion of the World – trained.
They include the Palace of the Governors in New Mexico, seat of the old Spanish government and the oldest public building in the United States.
The Great Bend of the Gila, a crossroads of human activity for thousands of years, long before Europeans ventured to this continent.
Villa Lewaro in Irvington, New York – the estate of Madam C.J. Walker, an African-American woman, the first free person born in her family, who became America’s first self-made woman millionaire.
Hinchliffe Stadium in Patterson, New Jersey, one of the three remaining stadiums of the Negro League.
The 1000 remaining Rosenwald Schools across the country, which were the center of the African-American education system in the days before Brown v. Board of Education, and reflect the endurance of African American communities in creating educational opportunities in the face of Jim Crow. And the Sweet Auburn District here in Atlanta, once known as the “richest Negro street in the world,” where. Dr. King was born and raised, where he worshipped, and where today he and Coretta are buried.
All of these vital places in our story, and they should be preserved as such.
We are also working to expand the canvas at traditional sites, like Dr. King did with the Lincoln Memorial, so they reflect the stories of all the Americans who helped to shape them.
At Montpelier, for example, we want to tell the story not just of James Madison, but Dolly Madison, and the people held in bondage there.
At the National Cathedral– also one of our National Treasures – we want to tell the story of Dr. King’s last Sunday sermon, along with other stories.
In doing all of this, we are following the example already set by communities all over the country. Americans want preservation to be about more than just maintaining historic homes and interpreting the mansions of Founding Fathers. “John Hancock slept here” is not going to cut it anymore.
They want to see the history and struggles that matter to them reflected in our national story. They want to see the places they cherish recognized, protected, and actively thriving.
In fact, it was this same yearning that helped make Martin Luther King, Jr. Day our newest federal holiday. The idea for a Dr. King day was introduced in Congress very soon after his assassination in April of 1968. But it would never have become law if millions of Americans hadn’t mobilized for it.
Even as that bill languished, three million people signed a petition urging an official MLK Day in 1971.
Eleven years later, spurred by Stevie Wonder's popular "Happy Birthday," a song dedicated to the cause, and the endorsement of over one hundred organizations, six million Americans signed the largest petition of support to Congress in our nation's history.
And in 1983, President Reagan signed Martin Luther King Day into law.
"This is not a black holiday," Coretta Scott King emphasized on the day of that signing. "It is a people's holiday." And it is. It is a day we all celebrate Dr. King’s contributions to our country, and to our sense of justice.
This is the same grassroots enthusiasm we’re seeing all over. But saving more diverse places is only part of the equation. We also have to broaden the scope of what we do, and think about how we do things a little differently.
For one, there has always been a longstanding emphasis in our community on saving grand and beautiful buildings. This emphasis is written into law.
For example, current federal guidelines for the National Register stipulate that buildings must have physical integrity, meaning they still look like they did long ago, and either be at least fifty years old or meet a standard of “exceptional importance”.
Now, saving beautiful buildings is hugely important – we like beautiful buildings! – but it also tends to limit our perspective of history to architectural significance. And there is so much more to our story than that. We also have to save places where there are modest structures, or even no structures at all.
Not every American of importance grew up in a grand manse – far from it. Dr. King grew up in a modest home in Sweet Auburn. Coretta Scott King’s story began on a small farm in Heiberger, north of Marion, in rural Southwest Alabama. And sometimes the places that matter most to us are plain, simple, and unadorned. They won’t catch an architect’s eye, but they still matter.
I think of my own family, whose roots literally go back to a hole in the ground in Kansas. To escape from poverty in Norway, my father’s ancestors immigrated to the United States in 1869. My great-great-grandfather, his wife, and their eight children homesteaded on the Kansas prairie.
For twelve years, they lived in a dug-out, literally underground. Whenever I have a bad day, I thank my lucky stars I am not spending a cold Kansas winter raising eight kids in a one-room dug-out!
Now this dug-out is not going to be on the National Register any time soon. But it is important to my family. It speaks of the courage, determination, hard work and overcoming of adversity that was a good part of their lives.
It also tells a story about women’s history: how my great-grandmother left Norway with four children -- sailing across the Atlantic and arriving at a Kansas train station with no one to meet her. It tells our family story.
Last month, President Obama announced the Pullman Historic District in Chicago as a National Monument – something we had been pushing for a long time. And, in his remarks, he put this so well. He first explained the importance of Pullman – telling the audience about A. Philip Randolph and the Pullman Porters, who fought to make Pullman the first company in America to recognize a union of black workers, and who helped seed the civil rights movement. Then he said, and I quote:
“Part of what we’re preserving here is…understanding that places that look ordinary are nothing but extraordinary. The places you live are extraordinary, which means you can be extraordinary.”
“You can make something happen, the same way these workers here at Pullman made something happen…”
“No matter who you are, you stand on the shoulders of giants. You stand on the site of great historic movements. And that means you can initiate great historic movements by your own actions.”
Isn’t that beautiful? And he’s right. History didn’t just happen at the White House or Independence Hall or even at the Lincoln Memorial.
Just like the struggle for justice and civil rights – a struggle that continues to this day – didn’t just take place in Selma and Montgomery and Atlanta. It happened in all of our neighborhoods and communities, step by step.
With that in mind, along with broadening our view of what is historic, we also have to keep exploring how to best commemorate the more complex and difficult chapters of our story.
"A society is always eager to cover misdeeds with a cloak of forgetfulness," Dr. King once wrote, "but no society can fully repress an ugly past when the ravages persist into the present."
The heartbreaking distrust in communities like Ferguson has many fathers. But it does not help that we, as a nation, have not been sufficiently appreciative of the stories and struggles of diverse communities in America, and it shows in the historic places we have chosen to save.
That is why we agree with the descendants of former slaves who believe that the Shockoe Bottom area of Richmond, Virginia -- once the center of the antebellum slave trade -- should be treated as a site of conscience, where the public can reflect on struggles for freedom, seek harmony and reconciliation, and join together to address contemporary legacies of injustice.
Because until we are better attuned to the history of all of our citizens, and until we weave a national narrative of ourselves that includes all Americans, and the struggles they overcome, this distrust will continue.
Finally, preserving the full richness of our national experience also requires a more inclusive movement, with all voices represented at the table.
I remember vividly a story told by our former Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, about his confusion as a child when his teachers said that American history “began” in Jamestown.
For he knew quite well that his own ancestors had been living in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains of New Mexico for at least 500 years!
But when he read history textbooks – and later when he became Secretary of the Interior and responsible for cultural resource protection in our country – he did not see many places reflecting the story of his own people.
Or as Dr. King put it similarly at National Cathedral, forty-seven years ago tomorrow: “Before the Pilgrim fathers landed at Plymouth, we were here. Before Jefferson etched across the pages of history the majestic words of the Declaration of Independence, we were here. Before the beautiful words of the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ were written, we were here.”
Not all of our stories began on the Mayflower. Many of our tales run through Ellis Island, Shockoe Bottom, the Mariel Boatlift, and the Bering Strait. And to capture American history in all its remarkable breadth and diversity, we need a preservation movement that looks more like America.
This isn’t a question of convincing people that history is important. Americans already know that! It is about listening to communities who are already fully engaged in saving the places that matter to them.
And it is about connecting to, and leveraging the energy and enthusiasm of, the 15 million Americans already taking action.
Our research shows that the rising Millennial generation, which is both the largest and most diverse generation of Americans in our history, is also more interested in the past than any before them.
We need to reach out and engage these young men and women who already working to make a difference. And we are always looking for fun, exciting ways to make that happen.
A year ago we organized 700 volunteers to re-paint the interior of Hinchliffe, the Negro League baseball stadium in Paterson, New Jersey.
One of our newest initiatives – that we are extremely excited about – is our partnership with The Corps Network and the National Park Service: the Hands-On Preservation Experience Crew, or HOPE Crew. This is a program that helps young people receive critical training and experience in preservation skills by giving them the opportunity to rehabilitate historic places in need.
This is a win-win partnership. On one hand, young men and women get an opportunity to enter into a high-need field and obtain education and training in preservation skills that can otherwise be hard to come by.
On the other, HOPE Crew helps to alleviate the $4.5 billion backlog in deferred maintenance at National Parks sites.
In just its first year, over one hundred HOPE Crew Corpsmembers have contributed over 12,000 hours to serving their communities by restoring historic sites and structures all over the country.
Some of their projects include adobe in New Mexico, stables in Virginia, the log cabin home of Lyndon Johnson’s grandfather, and, with the Greening Youth Foundation, the restoration of shotgun homes here in Sweet Auburn.
So to our Hope Crew MLK Corpsmembers – Dominique, Joshua, Ladarius [La-darius], Breyona [Bree-yona], Shaina, Tony – and all our volunteers, thank you for your service and dedication, and for helping to restore this important slice of our history.
We are also looking to broaden our movement in other ways.
For example, we are working with the HBCU Institute to link college students attending Historically Black Colleges and Universities to National Park Service sites that focus on the important role African Americans have played in the development and progress of the United States.
Our National Trust Diversity Scholarship Program has been working for years to help make preservation more inclusive and accessible providing scholarships to our annual conference.
And we are looking to the labor movement, the Asian American experience, the women’s rights struggle, and the LGBTQ movement to find other places of meaning.
I hope everyone here today can help out too. Because we cannot tell the full story of our country without everyone involved.
Having all voices represented is also important so we can make sure that our historic preservation efforts are lifting all boats, and not displacing existing communities. This is something we are watching out for very carefully.
Our Preservation Green Lab, the National Trust’s research arm, has been delving deeply in recent years into the impact of older buildings on neighborhood growth and urban vitality.
We have found they have “hidden density” – more people and businesses per square foot than areas with just new buildings. They are more walkable and have more creative jobs. They have more new and women and minority-owned businesses. And they show more activity on evenings and weekends.
In short, old buildings help cities grow, develop, and become communities. They are necessary to the civic and municipal fabric of our towns and cities.
So there is an enormous opportunity here to leverage older buildings to create jobs and spur economic opportunity for families across America.
Preservation can save important places, and at the same time turn historic resources into community anchors that accommodate the ever-changing needs of society—from food markets to clothing stores to cultural centers.
But we have to make sure we’re doing it right, and that the quality of life for existing urban residents isn’t being diminished by displacement, the rising cost of living, and loss of neighborhood identity.
The good news is: this can happen. We are seeing it right here in Sweet Auburn. If you take a walk through the neighborhood, you can see the seeds of positive transformation first-hand.
The refurbished playground at Hope-Hill Elementary, a mainstay of the neighborhood for decades. The re-opened Atlanta Daily World building, once home to America’s first black-owned daily newspaper, now restored.
The infrastructure for the Atlanta streetcar, which will connect Sweet Auburn to other Atlanta areas of note and help spur economic revitalization.
In conjunction with the National Main Street Center, one of our subsidiaries, volunteers and local stakeholders have come together as Sweet Auburn Works, to develop and steer a plan for the neighborhood that ensures all its residents continue to thrive. It is happening – right here.
Or, to take another example from the state of Georgia, the Historic Macon Foundation has using a number of innovative financing tools to revitalize the Beall’s Hill neighborhood around Mercer University.
To give you a quick bottom line, with a total investment of roughly $5.8 million, they will transform about 475 buildings in the historic neighborhood. And since they began these efforts, the total property tax revenue in the area has increased by nearly $1 million, much of it from rehabbing abandoned houses and building on empty land.
What’s more, Historic Macon never displaces landowners by acquiring occupied houses, and counters gentrification in other ways too, like recruiting low-income homeowners and advocating for property tax freezes.
What these neighborhood-spanning rehab projects demonstrate is that history, sustainability, fairness, & economic vitality can all go hand-in-hand.
The best preservation projects can create opportunities for all community residents at all income levels to live, work and play, all the while retaining the local history that ties together current and future generations.
But we need a broad and diverse movement, with everyone having a voice at the table, to make sure we are moving forward in the right way. And that means your voice as well.
You may not yet think of yourself as a preservationist, but if there are places that matter to you and that you want to protect, if you care about restoring our communities and helping them to flourish, if you want to see the full spectrum of the past reflected in the places we save, then we stand with you.
We are stronger with every Member, every grassroots activist, every volunteer. So please get active and involved.
Tell others about places and stories that matter. Write letters to the editor. Visit us at savingplaces.org or preservationation.org, follow us on Twitter or Facebook or Instagram. Join our work to save diverse and historic places.
And please let us know what places are being overlooked, and what stories are not being fully represented. And help us to hold them up.
The Tinner Hill site in Falls Church I talked about earlier – That site exists today because of the hard work and dedication of local volunteers and activists who fought for years to make it happen. They wanted to see that site protected, and that story affirmed for future generations.
Let’s get involved in our communities to do the same for all the other places that tell our tale.
Ultimately, preservation is about protecting places that matter to each of us.
And it is about securing the vision that Dr. King laid out a half-century ago: Making sure that every American has the chance to see themselves, and the places they hold dear, included in our collective story. That story has not always been pretty. We have had to work hard, over centuries, to achieve and live up to the ideals of our democratic founding, and to the dream Dr. King bestowed on us. We are still working on it.
But saving the places that tell that story— from the Tinner Hill Historic Site to the Pettus Bridge to all the others across the nation – helps to illuminate that long march we are taking in America toward justice and equality.
These places remind us of those who, in their own time, carried that beacon forward. And they remind us that it is our time now, to come together, and work to make the world a better place than we found it. Thank you so much.