Speech | Hampton, Virginia | October 10, 2014

Towards a More Perfect Union: Engaging a More Diverse Community in Preservation

Stephanie K. Meeks at Hampton University

It is a pleasure to be here at Hampton University. As president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, I have the great pleasure of visiting many spectacular places, and this remarkable campus along the Hampton River is certainly one of them. Even more than beautiful, this school is also part of a National Historic Landmark district, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and has a rich cultural history dating back nearly 150 years. Booker T. Washington and the many alumni who have graduated from Hampton have played a critical role in American history. And as you graduate and move forward in your own lives, I have no doubt you too will have great influence in shaping our nation’s future.

Now, before I go any further to talk about history and places, I would like to ask you to take a moment to picture a place that matters to you personally. It may be your home; a park; a church; a school. But picture a place that you would hate to see destroyed. What has it meant to your life? To your connection to your community? What does it say about who you are?

For me, the answer to that question is literally a hole in the ground. I am fortunate enough to be able to trace my father’s ancestors’ immigration to the United States from Norway in 1869, at a time of great poverty in that country. My great-great grandfather homesteaded on the Kansas prairie, where he, his wife and their eight children lived in a dug-out, literally underground, for twelve years. I can tell you that any day I think I am having a bad day at the office, I just thank my lucky stars that I am not trying to raise eight children in a one-room dug-out on the Kansas prairie, in the winter!

More seriously, that place, which I first experienced as a child, speaks to me of the courage, the determination, the hard work, the overcoming of adversity that was a part of their lives. And, for me, the story of my ancestors is also a story about women’s history: about my great-grandmother leaving Norway by herself as a young woman with four children in tow, sailing across the Atlantic, travelling across the United States and arriving at a train station in Kansas with no one to meet her. And their story plays out time and again through the human migration narrative; one that continues today and is so vividly reported on the front pages of our newspapers. For those who chose to come here, and for those who were brought here against their will and unable to trace their ancestors’ specific path of arrival, I draw strength from their courage and fortitude.

It is that connection that draws me to the work of preservation. At its most basic, preservation is about protecting places that matter to each of us. We want these places to stand as beacons for us and for those who come after us. Said another way, preservation is about deciding what we want to survive into the next century.

And, I believe there is a preservationist in all of us. There is a place that we want our children to know. A place that tells the unique story of who we are, and who our communities are. Places like the Kansas prairie or a rural Rosenwald school, places that have shaped us into who we are as individuals and as a society.

Rosenwald Schools, as I am sure you know, are part of the remarkable legacy of Booker T. Washington. What you may not know as is the preservation movement that legacy has spawned. In 1912, Booker T. Washington approached Julius Rosenwald, a board member at Tuskegee Institute and president of the famous retailer, Sears, Roebuck and Company, with an idea to build six small schools in rural Alabama to improve the educational opportunities for African American children. Creating one of the first formal challenge grants of its time – something that is now quite common – Rosenwald offered architectural drawings and half of the funding, requiring communities to raise the balance. And they did.

The effort took off and resulted in the construction of more than 5,300 buildings in 15 states. These buildings would become classrooms and teachers’ houses built by and for African Americans. I have read that one in every five rural schools for black students in the South was a Rosenwald School and that together they served one-third of the region’s black school children, making it arguably one, if not the most important partnerships to advance African American education in the early 20th century.

Then, in 1954, when the Supreme Court ruled segregation in education to be unconstitutional, the schools became obsolete. Many Rosenwald Schools, once the pride of their communities, were neglected, abandoned, or demolished. But, despite the schools’ historic significance, only a small percent of Americans are familiar with these structures and their iconic history. Why is that?

At the National Trust, we have spent the past dozen years working to raise the awareness of these historic buildings. In 2002, the National Trust named Rosenwald Schools to its annual list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. Through an annual conference, we have connected former Rosenwald students with one another; we have provided funding to help preserve these buildings so that future generations can learn about and appreciate the impact that Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington had on African American education in this country and the stories of endurance of African American communities creating educational opportunities where there were none.

So this leads us to our challenge. 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 Secretary Salazar 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 texts – 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.

The challenge is that too often, when you look at the formal or traditional historic preservation movement, you often see a very one-sided version of history. I mentioned earlier that parts of Hampton University are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The National Register was created nearly 50 years ago through the National Historic Preservation Act. It is administered by the National Park Service and is the official register of the nation’s historic places considered worthy of preservation and protection.

When I became president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation four years ago, I learned that only eight percent of the 86,000 listings on the National Register of Historic Places represent women and racially and ethnically diverse places. I offer this fact not to cast blame on the National Park Service, which has been working to address this shortcoming in a number of ways and have made some impressive strides in recent years. And by their own admission, the Park Service says the number is likely to be higher when one takes into account the layers of history at these sites, if those stories were documented

But I mention the 8% because it is their self-reported number and provides one data point that underscores what I want to speak to you about today: our changing world view and what changes we must make together to ensure that our nation’s collective and diverse stories are among those that survive into the next century.

Now, let me give you some background that helps to set the stage. In the early days of the Civil War, a woman from South Carolina, Ann Pamela Cunningham, led an effort to protect George Washington’s home, Mount Vernon, which had fallen into disrepair. She galvanized women from both the North and the South to raise the money to buy Washington’s home and plantation.

This story is important to us for two reasons. The first is that even during such a dark time, we see that people were able to come together to protect a cultural resource whose value they shared. Evidence, I believe, that there is a universal human impulse -- to protect the places that have significance in our lives. But what this story also presages is the focus on the “great men and great houses” of history that would become a focus of the preservation movement for the next hundred years.

Some decades after the Mount Vernon Ladies sought to preserve Mount Vernon, in a similar fashion, a group of African American women of the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs gathered together in 1916 to galvanize resources to help preserve the Frederick Douglass House. They continued to own and maintain it until 1962, when the National Park Service took on the role of restoring and preserving it. The Frederick Douglass house restoration effort is just one example that shows us preservation has long had broad appeal and support.

Yet, when the National Preservation Act was signed in 1966, making preservation a national value ensconced in Federal law, the focus of the preservation movement had not advanced much beyond the founding of the Mount Vernon Ladies Association more than a hundred years earlier.

Preservation priorities were placed on grand and beautiful buildings. While architecturally significant places are indeed important, this approach created an extraordinarily limited perspective of our history, and it sidelined many truly remarkable places from inclusion on the National Register. It meant that places of historic significance but limited architectural significance were overlooked; 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 for his victorious bout against Muhammad Ali.

Working towards a more complete representation of our nation’s history means fundamentally challenging what we believe matters. Federal guidelines currently dictate that buildings must be at least 50 years old or meet what is called the “exceptionally important” standard to be placed on the National Register. And they must have physical integrity, meaning they still look like they did long ago. These are three very high standards to meet. And, for many of the places that represent histories we now characterize as exceptionally important, the physical structures might have changed substantially.

Take, for instance, a place where there are no buildings at all, like Shockoe Bottom in Richmond, Virginia, which played a pivotal role during the peak years of the nation’s interstate slave trade. Solomon Northup, author of “12 Years a Slave,” was held there in 1841 at the notorious Goodwin’s slave jail before he was transported in chains to New Orleans.

Much of Shockoe Bottom has since been razed and paved over, nearly forgotten by mainstream historians. But, for many descendants of the enslaved, Shockoe Bottom remains sacred ground associated with suffering, injustice, and resistance to slavery. And we agree with those advocating beside us that Shockoe Bottom should be treated as a site of conscience, where the public can reflect on past struggles for freedom, seek harmony and reconciliation, and join together to address the contemporary legacies of injustice.

We believe that starts by diversifying the people and places in the preservation movement. And this will, involve changing attitudes and perceptions that have been in place since before the days of the Mount Vernon Ladies Association.

I think we can all agree that a more perfect union recognizes and preserves the history of all its communities and involves the people from these communities in this process. Just as Booker T. Washington found a partner in Julius Rosenwald to accomplish his vision, by working together with many people, including all of you here in this room, I believe we can make important strides to build a more inclusive preservation movement.

America in 2014 is very different -- not only from the country that the Mount Vernon ladies knew, but also, from the nation that passed the Historic Preservation Act in 1966. The attitudes of millions of Americans are evolving, and so are the demographics of our great nation. We are constantly changing.

Our own research shows that the 15 million people engaged in preservation — grassroots activists already taking action in their local communities to save places — are much younger and much more diverse than the traditional base of preservationists. This realization has spurred us to think about the profile of the National Trust’s own portfolio of work and to take action to engage new audiences in preservation.

We are proud that nearly 50 percent of our campaigns to protect a portfolio of nationally significant places which we call National Treasures, reflect the often overlooked history of our nation. From Madam C.J. Walker’s Villa Lewaro estate in Irvington, New York; to Fort Monroe just down the road here; to Hinchliffe Stadium in Patterson, New Jersey; to the remaining 1,000 Rosenwald Schools, we have defined for ourselves what constitutes a treasured place worth saving for generations to come. And we are committed to maintaining a high percentage of diverse treasures in our portfolio going forward.

In addition to our work to protect specific places, we are also using the megaphone of the National Trust to change people’s perceptions. We have worked to ensure that our 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list—an annual list of threatened locations that garners widespread media attention—also sounds the alarm to protect and tell the stories of diverse histories. Places such as Shockoe Bottom, Joe Frazier’s, and Sweet Auburn historic district in Atlanta, birthplace of Martin Luther King, Jr. and once known as the “richest Negro street in the world,” represent unique communities that tell a very different and important story about the American experience.

Our presence at conferences like the National Association of Black Journalists and the National Council of La Raza has helped to raise the visibility of preservation work within diverse communities.

We have taken our message to Congress. Among other legislative efforts to protect culturally diverse places, the National Trust will be working with Congressman Jim Clyburn, the senior African-American member of the House of Representatives, to advance his recently introduced bill to reauthorize the Historically Black Colleges and Universities Historic Preservation Fund.

Between 1996 and 2009, this program invested more than $61 million in the restoration of historic buildings on HBCU campuses, including more than $2 million here at Hampton University.

The National Trust has also been a leading advocate of another Historic Preservation Fund program that has just awarded $500,000 in grants for the survey and nomination of properties to the National Register of Historic Places and as National Historic Landmarks from communities underrepresented in those programs.

And beyond the halls of Congress and our work with the media, we are taking the message of preservation directly to the community and reaching a broader audience at the same time. We are committed to training the next generation of preservationists, providing jobs and skills to those who might not have access to such training elsewhere.

We are doing this through a program we call HOPE Crew, a new National Trust partnership with the Corps Network. HOPE stands for Hands on Preservation Experience, and although it was launched just this past April, it is off to a strong start training young people in hands-on skills at historic preservation projects across the country.

We also work to connect with organizations such as the Greening Youth Foundation, which in partnership with the National Park Service initiated by the National Park Service, the HBCU Institute-- known as HBCUI, links college students attending Historically Black Colleges and Universities, such as Hampton, to National Park Service sites that have a focus on the African American experience and culture and on the important role African Americans play in the development and progress of the United States.

Here at Hampton, you have classmates who are participating in this program now – students like Cleressa Brown, a senior from Seattle who is involved in HBCUI and recently visited our National Trust headquarters in Washington, DC to meet with our leadership teams. We are delighted that Cleressa has expressed interest in keeping in close touch with our preservation department so that she can continue to pursue her interest in saving places and perhaps convert it into a career focus.

Our National Trust Diversity Scholarship Program has been working for years to help make the preservation movement more inclusive and accessible. We have had a number of scholars come to our conference – a retired police officer from Chicago, a mayor from a small town in Alabama, and an owner of a public relations firm in Georgia who wanted to save the family home of author and activist Angela Davis. Each of our scholars has his or her own individual preservation interest ranging from saving family history, to local advocacy and activism, to the wider movement of social justice, and the desire to have their own ancestors’ backgrounds and struggles recognized and saved for future history lessons.

We also are looking to the labor movement, the Asian American experience, the struggle for women’s rights, and the movement for LGBT to find places of meaning.

Preserving the full American experience is an ambitious task requiring us to look at places important to Americans from all backgrounds.

It is our hope that we hear about more examples of people like Kay Coles James, a Hampton University alum, whose dream was to see Dr. Robert Russa Moton’s home -- Holly Knoll in Gloucester, VA --preserved and functioning as a place where students could come together and learn how to be leaders within their communities. Today, Holly Knoll is fully restored and serves as a powerful example of taking a historically significant place and using it as a resource for the advancement of the next generation.

We often hear, though, that preservation is not always a force for good. That it disrupts communities. That it “gentrifies.” And this is something we need to tackle head on.

I am talking about the wholesale conversion of old abandoned buildings into revitalized new spaces in historically diverse communities, and how this can alter the demographics of that neighborhood.

Preservation alone is not the cause of displacement, and in fact, a recent study by Lance Freeman at Columbia University found that the displacement perception is overblown. He says, residents are no more likely to move out of their homes when a neighborhood starts to realize its resurgence than when it does not.

More often than not, preservation actually stabilizes neighborhoods and supports existing residents across the economic spectrum. Preservation can save important places, and at the same time turn these historic resources into community anchors that accommodate the ever-changing needs of society—from food markets to clothing stores to cultural centers.

Take Washington, DC, the home of the National Trust. There is an emerging, area there known as the H Street Corridor, located just behind the Union Station. The area is nationally recognized as a valuable historic place—one of the “riot corridors” from the 1960s that still has much of its original historic fabric and character and is still home to longtime African American residents. Its revitalization has brought new stores, parks and restaurants to the still intact predominantly African American community that lives there.

Like the H Street Corridor, we believe the best preservation projects 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.

To be successful at what I am talking about today – to build a truly diverse preservation movement, we must tackle the issue of gentrification as we embrace and celebrate places that authentically represent the full spectrum of our history. Beyond creating house museums or freezing a neighborhood in time, we seek to create neighborhood gathering places that are dynamic and actively serve the community.

As I hope I have conveyed, the National Trust is committed to our role as a national convener to bring together historians and academic institutions, such as this one, to support our collective vision to honor the diverse places that tell the story of our past and bring us together as a nation.
We recognize that progress towards ensuring our nation’s collective and diverse story is represented in the places we consider worthy of preservation, and protection requires having all our voices represented at the table.

Now, remember that place you imagined at the beginning of my talk with you today? Are you ready to save it?

There is much in what Booker T. Washington was able to accomplish, not just in education, but in creating a history from which we can all be inspired. As we go forward with this important work, we need your engagement. The National Trust does not have all the answers, and so we have created a place on our website, savingplaces.org/hampton, where you can help us craft a vision of a more inclusive preservation movement. We strongly encourage you to submit your thoughts and ideas. And if you know of an important site that needs to be saved, we want to hear about it.

I hope you will come away from today’s discussion knowing that every time you stay in a historic hotel, put money in the offering plate at your historic church, or visit a historic site, you are showing the preservationist in you--and that matters.

Thank you.


The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded nonprofit organization, works to save America’s historic places.
SavingPlaces.org | @savingplaces

Every place has a woman's story to tell. Through Where Women Made History, we are identifying, honoring, and elevating places across the country where women have changed their communities and the world.

Learn More