November 1, 2014

President's Note: Expanding Our Outlook

When I first heard the figure 8 percent, I couldn’t believe it. And when I learned it was true, I didn’t want to believe it. According to the U.S. Department of the Interior, less than 8 percent of the places in our country listed on the National Register of Historic Places represent racially and ethnically diverse places. Less than 8 percent.

The National Register of Historic Places includes sites that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history, are associated with the lives of significant people, and have yielded or may be likely to yield information important in history or prehistory. But until recently, the list has represented a mostly white male version of events in our country. To its immense credit, the National Park Service has been working to address this shortcoming and has recently completed a theme study of Latino history, a precursor to preparing nominations to the Register. A similar study for Asian-American and Pacific Islander history will soon follow.

This realization also has spurred us to think about the National Trust’s own portfolio of work and how we can engage new audiences in preservation. We are proud that nearly 50 percent of our National Treasures portfolio reflects the often overlooked history of our nation.

It also has challenged us to expand our view about what is worth saving. Traditionally, high-style architecture associated with mainstream culture has garnered the most attention. But we’re working to change that. In June, we added a new National Treasure to our portfolio, Shockoe Bottom, a major slave-trading center in 19th-century Richmond, Virginia. Imperiled by development, its material culture has literally been buried—no buildings from the slave trade remain visible in the area slated for development. And yet, this site of conscience demands expert archaeological analysis and preservation-based land use planning so that these underground remnants of the slave trade can be interpreted properly and the lives of those sold into bondage can be honored.

Working towards a more complete representation of our nation’s history also challenges us to revisit what qualifies as “historic.” Today, properties must be at least 50 years old or meet the competitive “exceptionally important” standard to be placed on the National Register. Still, in many of the places that represent histories we now characterize as exceptionally important, the physical structures are only 20 to 50 years old.

We wish for all Americans to see themselves represented in our work. And we hope to inspire a more diverse preservation community to join us in our cause.

Stephanie K. Meeks is president and CEO of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. She is the author of "The Past and Future City", available now from Island Press.

@SavePlacesPres

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