April 14, 2015

It's Time to Tell the Whole Story

  • By: Stephanie K. Meeks

Two weeks ago, I had the privilege of speaking at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center in Atlanta about the critical importance of our diversity outreach efforts at the National Trust. The op-ed below, which appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution this past Saturday, explains why we are working so hard on this, and how you can get involved. If you know of an overlooked place that matters, please tell us in the comments!

Stephanie K. Meeks speaks at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center about the importance of diversity outreach efforts in preservation.

“Before the Pilgrim fathers landed at Plymouth, we were here. Before Jefferson etched across the pages of history the majestic words of the Declaration of Independence, we were here. Before the beautiful words of the Star Spangled Banner were written, we were here.” So said Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his last-ever Sunday sermon, 47 years ago. He’s right. For too long, our history wasn’t told in a way that embraced the contributions and struggles of black Americans. Nor did the places we preserve reflect the true diversity of our common American story.

Until very recently, our history tended to exclude more Americans than it kept in. Former Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar has talked about his own confusion as a child when his teachers told him that American history “began” at Jamestown – when he knew very well his own ancestors had lived in New Mexico for centuries. The first “Women’s History Month” was only a few decades ago. Before that, First Ladies were often the only women to be found in textbooks.

While our sense of ourselves has broadened and deepened in the years since Dr. King’s assassination, we are still lagging behind when it comes to saving places that tell diverse stories. At the National Trust for Historic Preservation, we are working to remedy this deficit, and to engage with people from all backgrounds to help save and revitalize diverse places that matter.

Martin Luther King Jr. is featured in a mural in the historic neighborhood of Sweet Auburn in Atlanta, Georgia (left), Dr. King's birthplace in Sweet Auburn (right).

Along with recognizing these important places, we want to highlight the connections between them, and weave their narratives into the larger strands of our story. Last fall, the Georgia Historical Society launched the Georgia Civil Rights Trail to commemorate the places in this state where people came together to mobilize against oppression and advance justice. Beginning in Albany, Atlanta, Columbus, and Savannah, they are erecting markers that tell the local stories of the civil rights struggle, and explaining how they connect to the movement as a whole.

We have been urging Congress to act similarly at the federal level. A U.S. Civil Rights Network program within the National Park Service would further link the historic sites, routes, corridors, and regions that defined the struggle for African-American equality, and deepen our understanding of the movement’s context and complexity.

We also must move beyond the traditional determination of a place’s historic significance. America has been good at saving grand and beautiful buildings in the past, and that is important. But sometimes the places that matter most are simple and unadorned. Places like Joe Frazier’s Gym, a modest, three-story brick building in Philadelphia, where the Heavyweight Champion of the World -- trained for his victorious bout against Muhammad Ali. As President Obama recently put it in Chicago, speaking of the historic Pullman neighborhood, “part of what we’re preserving here…is understanding that places that look ordinary are nothing but extraordinary. The places you live are extraordinary, which means you can be extraordinary.”

A photo of Dr. King from an exhibit at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center.

From slavery to Jim Crow and Indian Removal to internment, sometimes telling the whole American story means there are complex and difficult chapters. But we cannot understand ourselves, our nation, or many of our current debates without reflecting on the struggles of earlier times. And the places which tell these stories -- found in all of our communities -- help make clear that the progress we have made in our country only happened because Americans of a different time took huge risks to ensure we live up to our best ideals.

Finally, preserving the full richness of our national experience requires diverse voices represented at the table. We want to encourage and enhance the efforts of the young generation now taking action in their local communities. Through programs like the HOPE (Hands-On Preservation Experience) Crew -- a recently launched partnership with the Corps Network -- the National Trust is helping young people to obtain valuable hands-on skills at historic preservation projects across the country, including at the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site in Atlanta.

In 1967, Dr. King decried “America’s penchant for ignoring the Negro, making him invisible and making his contributions insignificant. The wealth of cultural and technological progress in America,” he argued instead, “is a result of the commonwealth of inpouring contributions.” Today, we are working to encourage that fuller understanding of ourselves in the places we save.

As we move forward, we hope you will let us know what places are being overlooked and stories are not being fully represented, and help us to hold them up. Because Americans want preservation to be about more than just the palatial mansions of wealthy white families and “John Hancock Slept Here” -- we want to see the history of all Americans honored and remembered, and to see all our families and communities reflected in the telling.

Stephanie K. Meeks was the president and CEO of the National Trust for Historic Preservation from 2010-2018. She is the author of "The Past and Future City."

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

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