September 17, 2013

How to Preserve African-American Historic Places

In honor of our country’s recent 50th anniversary of the March on Washington -- and in light of this week’s Congressional Black Caucus annual conference with its exciting focus on the many ways preservation can benefit African-American communities -- today’s toolkit features tips and case studies to help you save sites of African-American heritage in your community.

First, a few preservation tips:

1. Review your historic preservation knowledge. In many ways, preserving a site of African-American 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.

blog_photo_African Burial Ground
The African Burial Ground in downtown Manhattan commemorates an unmarked and previously forgotten burial site of free and enslaved African-Americans from the 17th- and 18th-centuries.

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.

Next, six case studies to get you started:

1. Louis Armstrong House Museum; Queens, N.Y. 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. Learn more.

2. Weeksville Heritage Center; Brooklyn, N.Y. The Weeksville Heritage Center was founded in 1968 to celebrate the history of the free 19th-century African-American 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. Learn more.

3. Black Heritage Trail; Portsmouth, N.H. 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 African-Americans in the coastal city of Portsmouth. Learn more.

blog_photo_Project Row Houses
Houston's Project Row Houses, now an artists' community and learning center.

4. Project Row Houses; Houston, Texas. In many cases, the restoration of buildings associated with African-American 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. Learn more.

5. African Burial Ground National Monument; Lower Manhattan, N.Y. Sometimes the physical evidence of a place’s history has deteriorated 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. Learn more.

6. Ware Creek Rosenwald School; Blounts Creek, N.C. 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. Learn more. (And check out our previous toolkit on preserving Rosenwald Schools.)

Adapted from the National Trust’s publication Preserving African American Places.

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