June 11, 2020

Out of Crisis, an Opportunity

In my May 19 essay titled, A New Era of Justice, I wrote about the impacts of COVID-19 on African Americans and diverse communities, and I challenged preservationists and Americans to consider preservation as a tool for positive social change. It was a simple call to action. A time to self-reflect. An opportunity to consider the link between preservation and equity.

And then, without a forewarning of the trauma that was to come, George Floyd was killed in a horrific act that incited anger and despair in African Americans and many others.

Since that moment, the world has witnessed some powerful public protests through the lens of race, politics, and arts activism. In Washington, D.C., the Decatur House was tagged with graffiti. At this site of enslavement, where African Americans were held in bondage, an unknown protester standing in the shadows of the White House painted these words: “Why do we have to keep telling you Black Lives Matter?” Nearby, the words “Black Lives Matter” has been painted across two city blocks and an already iconic street sign has designated this place as “Black Lives Matter Plaza.” We’re witnessing how a new generation will communicate and represent its collective values in public spaces.

Church in Nicodemus, KS

The A.M.E. Church in Nicodemus, Kansas one of the vanishing free Black Settlements in Kansas and Texas.

As Poet Maya Angelou said, “History, despite its wrenching pain cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage need not be lived again.” One solution to our deep well of civic needs and the harms of systemic racism is preserving and telling the fullness of African American experiences to benefit all Americans. Our society must revere African American history as American history, while also paying homage and respect to the centuries of Black life and activism that is fundamental to the nation itself. And our collective reverence and respect for Black people should be measured by the cultural assets that we preserve now and into the future.

In this moment, as the Executive Director of the National Trust’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, I feel it is critically important to acknowledge that the nation may be rich in diverse history, but it has often been poor in representation of that history and in funding its protection, conservation, and recognition.

Built in 1952, this Midcentury Ranch house in Dix Hills, New York, in 1964 was once the home of John and Alice Coltrane.

photo by: Joshua Scott

Exterior view of one the African American Cultural Heritage Fund grantees and National Treasure, the John and Alice Coltrane House.

We must approach this work with urgency. And that’s why the National Trust is working harder than ever to invest in and restore more cultural assets that hold exceptional cultural value. Places like the vacant homes of jazz legends John and Alice Coltrane in New York and Nina Simone in North Carolina; elegant centers of community pride at the Wilfandel Ladies Club in Los Angeles and the Grand Old Lady of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs in D.C.; the vanishing free Black settlements in Kansas and Texas.

African Americans have always been dreamers of democracy and it is imperative now, more than ever, that we preserve and honor these places imbued with Black humanity. This is our opportunity to value the lessons African American sites teach us that are all the more important at this moment in our history. Join us in honoring and telling the full American story.

Brent Leggs

Brent Leggs is the executive director of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund and senior vice president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Join us in protecting and restoring places where significant African American history happened.

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