February 3, 2022

How to Preserve African American Historic Places

In 2012, to help local advocates preserve African American historic sites, especially those individuals new to preservation, the National Trust for Historic Preservation published a basic primer, Preserving African American Historic Places by Brent Leggs, now the executive director of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund. This 24-page publication introduces the world of historic preservation and explains some of the key players and procedures that make preservation happen.

To catch a glimpse of what the book offers, we've built out this toolkit which includes four quick preservation tips and six case studies that can show how preservation is a process, and not a one-size fits all approach to saving these essential historic places.

While the case studies included in this piece are pulled directly from the book, we also suggest you check out the stories on the Hutchinson House (Edisto Island, South Carolina), the ongoing work at McDonogh 19 (New Orleans,Lousiana), and Vernon A.M.E. (Tulsa, Oklahoma)

The Hutchinson House.

photo by: Leslie Ryann McKellar

The Hutchinson House on Edisto Island, South Carolina was preserved through a collaborative process with the Hutchinson Family, the Edisto Island Historic Preservation Society, and the Edisto Island Land Trust.

First, a few preservation tips:

1. Review your historic preservation knowledge. In many ways, preserving a site of Black heritage is similar to preserving other types of places. So, before you begin, make sure you have a solid grasp on basic steps and current tools.

2. Reach out to your preservation networks. Connect with your local and statewide governments and nonprofit agencies. Some groups may be eager to serve as partners or coordinate their efforts with yours. Others can offer valuable advice, resources, training opportunities, and even access to funding.

3. Organize your project. Strong, well-organized local action is the key to successful preservation efforts. Approach people in your community who have the experience, skills, and contacts to help lead your project. Develop a clear vision for the direction of your project. Lay out a specific, strategic plan that establishes what you will do with the historic property you want to preserve, how you will do it, and who will help.

4. Make use of all the preservation tools at hand. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel each time you want to preserve a historic place. Use the tools and resources already available. For example, your site may have been included in a historic resource survey. Look to designate the site on the National Register of Historic Places or a state or local register. Research grant programs that can offer financial incentives to private or nonprofit owners.

Leona Tate in front of McDonogh 19 Elementary School, New Orleans, Louisiana

photo by: Justen Williams

Leona Tate is pictured here in front of the McDonogh No. 19 Public School in New Orleans. As part of years long preservation project, Mcdonogh 19 is set to reopen as the Tate Etienne Prevost Interpretive Center for the history of New Orleans public school desegregation, civil rights, and restorative justice. In preserving this space, Tate is preserving her own history, when Tate, Gail Etienne, and Tessie Prevost—integrated McDonogh 19 in 1960.

Here are six case studies to get you started:

Louis Armstrong House Museum (Queens, New York): Keeping a house museum in operation requires reliable funding and a sound business model. In many cases, a partnership with another entity, such as an educational institution, ensures the long-term viability of a site. The Louis Armstrong House Museum is owned by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs and administered by Queens College through a long-term license agreement.

Weeksville Heritage Center (Brooklyn, New York): The Weeksville Heritage Center was founded in 1968 to celebrate the history of the free 19th-century Black community of Weeksville by preserving three of its remaining buildings. Today, it has expanded its focus beyond the traditional house museum model and serves as a modern arts and cultural organization. To reach this point, however, the center has had to adapt to changes in the surrounding community as well as install strong, visionary leaders to help the organization grow.

Black Heritage Trail (Portsmouth, New Hampshire): Heritage trails that link a number of sites through a walking or driving tour can highlight a broad range of themes in a single trail, such as sites associated with regional food and crafts, the local blues music scene, or civil rights activities. Alternatively, trails can focus on just one particular subject such as pre-Civil War sites. The Black Heritage Trail links a number of sites that tell the story of Black Americans in the coastal city of Portsmouth.

Project Row Houses (Houston, Texas): In many cases, the restoration of buildings associated with Black history has a welcome spin-off effect. A restored storefront or church, for example, can turn around a blighted neighborhood and stimulate reinvestment. Houston’s Project Row Houses has not only turned 22 derelict row houses into a thriving live-work artists’ community and learning center, but the project has also continued to enhance the neighborhood by providing complementary new and restored spaces for additional community use.

A view of a brick church in the Greenwood District of Tulsa, Oklahoma. The chapel is on the right side with white trim and stained glass windows, with an shorter hall on the left.

photo by: Marc Carlson via Flickr CC-BY-2.0

Exterior of Vernon A.M.E. in 2012. Today this church is being preserved not only as a house of worship but also as a centerpiece to telling the story of the Tulsa Race Massacre in 1921.

5. African Burial Ground National Monument (Lower Manhattan, New York): Sometimes the physical evidence of a place’s history has deteriorated, been intentionally erased, or has simply disappeared. This raises the complex question of how to interpret a site that lacks tangible and visible history. Over the years, the unmarked African American cemetery in Manhattan has been covered over by development and landfill. Today the site is commemorated physically and symbolically—parts have been restored and opened for public visits and an adjacent visitor center interprets its evocative history.

6. Ware Creek Rosenwald School (Blounts Creek, North Carolina):

Preserving an important local building, telling its story to present and future generations, and keeping it in active community use are the driving goals at the heart of many preservation projects. After the Ware Creek Rosenwald School was no longer needed as a school, community members banded together to care for the building, and it has since found a new purpose as a community center, historic site, and adult education center. (And check out our previous toolkit on preserving Rosenwald Schools.)

Visit the African American Cultural Heritage Fund for more stories on successful preservation projects related to Black Heritage.

Donate Today to Help Save the Places Where Our History Happened.

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A version of this story was published on 9/17/2013. It has been updated.

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