Community Engagement: Preservation Organizations and Saving Black History
Every community contains multifaceted stories—from the lives of elders to the little-known histories of unique homes on the block—each an integral part of the fabric of neighborhoods in which we live. While stories such as these can be lost to the annals of history, there are organizations across the country that work not only to preserve the histories of these places, but also to support their neighborhoods as they continue to grow.
These organizations are rooted in their communities they serve, small but mighty collectives working to preserve and protect their cultural resources through research studies, grant programs for preservation, and community events. Over the years the National Trust for Historic Preservation's African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund has supported community-centered projects. Below, we highlight three organizations—the West Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, the Preservation Resource Center of New Orleans, and the Nevada Preservation Foundation—that exemplify the work to support and preserve the stories and histories of the places they call home.
West Philadelphia Cultural Alliance
Nestled on a cozy block of West Philadelphia, the Paul Robeson House stands as a quiet landmark to the civil rights giant and operatic baritone who made his home in the city toward the end of his life. However, the organization behind this landmark is the West Philadelphia Cultural Alliance (WPCA), a long-standing collective of local artists and creatives, who have joined together to address the cultural needs of their communities.
Founded by Frances P. Aulston, the WPCA grew out of a community initiative to survey the cultural needs of Philadelphia. Aulston’s work promoting local artists provided a seed, her career beginning with a project focused on addressing the needs of neighborhoods in Philadelphia through a city commissioned study. Following the study, Aulston gathered with several other creatives to create a coalition and the WPCA was born in 1985, offering programming in the city focused on the arts, culture, and community.
Shortly after they were founded, the WPCA would join a coalition of 50 artists to host an arts festival to promote healing in the community in the aftermath of the MOVE bombing. From there, its programming would grow with an eye to the needs of artists and community members in West Philadelphia. Almost ten years later, in 1994, Aulston personally purchased the Paul Robeson House with her own money, working to restore it as a community center to be used for cultural events.
Paul Robeson moved to Philadelphia in 1965 following the death of his wife. The actor, organizer, and musician would spend the last years of his life at the home singing songs in the parlor, playing the piano, and connecting with the community around him. Robeson passed in 1976, but with a legacy as an international civil rights leader.
When Aulston purchased the home, the WPCA set about the work of restoring the home, which they completed in 2015. In 2020, the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund awarded a grant to the WPCA so that the organization could further their mission to connect Robeson’s legacy with the community he became embedded in during the last years of his life.
A museum to his life in Philadelphia is maintained in the Robeson House, where patrons can learn about about his legacy as a civil rights leader and his life in Philadelphia. This includes programming such as “Arts in the Parlor”, where artists can showcase their talents in the same room where Robeson would sing at the piano; hosting artist residencies, maintaining the museum to Robeson’s life, and producing community events such as the West Philly Porchfest.
Although Frances Aulston died in 2015, her legacy and spirit live on at the Paul Robeson House & Museum through the work she pioneered. Its current Executive Director, Vernoca Michael, has left her own legacy through the seed that Aulston sowed. In 2020, the organization was able to pay its mortgage off in full, celebrating with a mortgage-burning ceremony. This milestone is one part of Michael’s vision for the site as she continues to lead it through its renovation process.
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Preservation Resource Center of New Orleans
Founded by the Junior League of New Orleans in 1974, the Preservation Resource Center of New Orleans began as a small collective and grew into a standalone organization focused on preserving historic New Orleans architecture through community engagement. During a boom in development in the 1960s and 1970s members of the Junior League noticed a disconnect between the community and its historic buildings. In response, they started organized bus tours, called Building Watchers Tours, that alerted community members to overlooked historic places and those at risk of demolition.
The tours proved so popular, and the need for organized advocacy so enduring, that the Junior League provided seed funding to stand up, to stand up the Preservation Resource Center of New Orleans. Within three years, the nonprofit was independent and thriving.
Today, the PRCNO operates a center and museum on Tchoupitoulas Street, holds historic property easements on over 130 buildings, organizes dozens of classes and lectures on purchasing, renovating, and maintaining historic properties, and advocates for preservation programs and legislation on the local, state, and federal level.
PRCNO also works to ensure that New Orleans residents can stay in the city that has been subjected to high amounts of displacement and rapidly rising property values in the post-Katrina era, establishing Revival Grants for affordable housing in historic neighborhoods. This grant program was directly supported by the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund in 2019. Starting with a pilot program in Tremé, one of the oldest Black neighborhoods in the United States, the goal of the Revival Grant program centered around a desire to support low-income homeowners in the area hit hardest by the changes in the housing market.
“The staff and board of the PRCNO had long dreamed of a program that would provide free home repairs to low-income homeowners and then also alleviate the fines they had incurred by the local historic commission. Our vision was that preservation should not be utilized to penalize those most at risk of losing their homes, but rather could help them secure their asset for years to come, providing continued safe housing in the neighborhoods that mattered to them, and a source of generational wealth for their heirs,” said Danielle Del Sol, the executive director of PRCNO.
“The program launched in late 2019 and through two major hurricanes, a pandemic, and rising construction costs, we have helped over a dozen families so far with significant home repairs. The program has been so successful in Tremé that we are now able to branch out and offer Revival Grants in other historic neighborhoods across the city.”
PRCNO’s work invests in the community through programming that benefits the community in which they serve. While saving historic architecture is necessary and important, preserving the fabric of the neighborhood created by residents is a key piece of that work.
Nevada Preservation Foundation
When you think of Las Vegas it is easy to only think of the flashing lights and poker tables of the Strip, however one preservation organization is looking to change that. Founded in 2013 to preserve the unique historic architecture of Las Vegas, the Nevada Preservation Foundation (NPF)—which has since expanded into a statewide organization—works to educate communities about the importance of preservation. The organization hosts annual programs such as the Home + History program, which grew from a historic home tour to a weekend-long event, offering tours of city landmarks, artists talks, and a Martini Tour of the historic homes to support their work.
In 2019, the Foundation received an Action Fund grant to support the development of a historic context report outlining historic places of interest for preservation in Las Vegas’s historic Westside neighborhood. The story of the Westside neighborhood grew out of segregated development in the city of Las Vegas, with Black residents and business owners being pushed to the Westside of the city while white business owners and residents made their mark on the Las Vegas Strip. The neighborhood became home to Black-owned businesses and unique homes built by Black homeowners. However, with desegregation, the historic ties to the neighborhood began to fray with long-term residents moving out.
In addition to providing that broader historical information, the report provided NPF with essential information about the homes in the Westside neighborhood including the Christensen House and the Bolden Residence, two homes were built and maintained by prominent Black families essential to Las Vegas’s past and growth.
Built by LeRoy Christensen, a local cowboy who moved to Las Vegas with his family in the 1920s, the Christensen home features elements such as stones from the Colorado River, as well as elements of Tudor Revival, a popular early 20th-century architectural style. The Christensens were a prominent pioneering Black family in Las Vegas and Carrie Christensen, LeRoy’s wife, lived in the home until the mid-1970s. Sometimes referred to as the “Castle House,” the Christensen House is one of the more unique old homes in Las Vegas.
The Bolden Residence is a custom-built home created for Larry and Lois Bolden, prominent community members involved in the Black community. Larry Bolden grew up in Searchlight, NV, and was a life-long friend with local politician Harry Reid, the first deputy chief of the Las Vegas police and the namesake of the LVMPD’s Bolden Area Command. Lois was an educator and a founding member of Les Femmes Douze Debutantes (“The Twelve Ladies” in French), which supports cultural awareness, self-esteem, community service, empathy for others, and higher education for Black high school girls in Las Vegas. The current owner has kept much of the original features of the home, including multiple rooms of flocked, metallic wallpaper and a backyard hot tub that featured personalized margarita glasses.
Once the report was completed NPF prioritized including Historic Westside in their programming. For example, during Home + History Las Vegas 2022, the Foundation featured the two homes for the first time. Guests toured the Christensen House and the Bolden Residence and learned about the history of the spaces, as well as the families who lived there. The work of the NPF in the Historic Westside is focused on bringing more awareness to the Black history of Las Vegas, emphasizing this important part of the city’s growth.
In the face of changing city landscapes, demographics, and shifting housing markets, providing a space for the neighborhood’s historic development to thrive is critical to preserving and strengthening vulnerable communities. The work of these three preservation organizations, which focus on community connections, are an essential part of preservation practice today.
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