June 19, 2020

Juneteenth 2020: Racial Injustice, Preservation, and Place

Juneteenth—which marks the day in 1865 that the enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, first learned of their freedom—should be observed by all Americans to celebrate the end of the Civil War and to acknowledge our first fateful steps in the long walk towards freedom for Black people. Unfortunately, 157 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, our democracy remains inequitable and inexcusably violent because of one simple fact: skin color.

In June 2020, we are struggling with a pandemic, economic shock, and entrenched racism. Police killings of Black people are met by righteous outrage in the streets, where Americans mourn George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, and too many others unjustly killed. As Karen Attiah wrote on June 4, 2020, in The Washington Post, "Black people are in the streets because we are literally fighting against silencing, erasure and dehumanization." In solidarity with African Americans, a multiracial coalition is marching in the footsteps of earlier generations whose vision for equality and human rights continues to inspire.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation decries racism, and we support inclusion and diversity. Nevertheless, the National Trust and the preservation movement are like most industries in this country built on systems of inequality. In the not-too-distant past, historic sites were preserved to reinforce the white majority’s narrative and to communicate idealized (but unevenly realized) American values.

This must change.

African Meeting House

Interior of the African Meeting House, a National Trust Historic Site in Boston, Massachusetts.

It is our duty to align preservation with the work of justice. As Rev. William Barber said on June 15, 2020, at Washington National Cathedral, “If we are going to get better, we need some real truth-telling[.] … We must face the fact that the history and the character of our nation is carved out of chasms of racial brutality and economic exploitation.”

We believe preservation must intentionally pivot towards racial justice, equity, and reconciliation. In our careers, we have seen preservation evolve for the better and, now more than ever, we believe a renewed commitment to a people-centered practice is the future of our movement. Done right, historic places can foster real healing, true equity, and a validation of all Americans and their history.

One hopeful sign is the growing number of sites dedicated to uplifting truth and advancing justice. These historic sites (four of which received grants from the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund) acknowledge human suffering and struggles, help visitors to make meaning of difficult history, and offer a venue for public discourse about the future and how we must act in it.

Emmett Till Interpretive Center (Sumner, Mississippi)

The Interpretive Center tells the harrowing stories of Emmett Till’s 1954 lynching and the acquittal of his white murderers, while sharing stories of Mamie Till’s remarkable Civil Rights activism. The Emmett Till Memorial Commission, which founded the Center, facilitates community dialogue around race and actively works for racial reconciliation in the Delta. The Center has restored the Tallahatchie County Courthouse and acquired the riverside place where Emmett Till’s body was recovered. The Center also is protecting and interpreting other places essential to an understanding of this story.

Marian Anderson House (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)

At this modest house, the Marian Anderson Historical Society honors the legacy of the opera singer and humanitarian. With grace and perseverance, Anderson broke down racial barriers. She was the first African American to perform at the White House, and the first African American to sing as a member of the Metropolitan Opera. This was her home when she inspired the world with her 1939 concert at the Lincoln Memorial. The Society’s Scholar Artists Program supports young singers, instrumentalists, and artists—ambassadors for Anderson’s legacy.

Harriet Tubman Home (Auburn, New York)

This was the homestead of the revered leader of the Underground Railroad movement. Throughout her life, Tubman was dedicated to civil rights, women’s rights, and the welfare of formerly enslaved people. The “Moses of her people,” Tubman brought her family here in 1859, and it is here she established a resting home for aged and indigent African Americans. Today, the Home is stewarded by a nonprofit associated with the AME Zion Church. Visitors learn about Tubman’s core values of freedom, faith, and her indomitable will.

Harriet Tubman Home, Auburn, NY

photo by: Gregory Melle

Exterior of the Harriet Tubman Home in Auburn, New York.

African Meeting House (Boston, Massachusetts)

This 1809 church, now a National Trust Historic Site, was constructed in the heart of Boston’s 19th century free Black community. It is the oldest Black church standing in the U.S. The Meeting House became a center of abolitionists like Frederick Douglas and William Lloyd Garrison. The New England Anti-Slavery Society was founded there, and the 54th Massachusetts recruited there. Today, programming at the Meeting House tells “powerful stories of Black families who worshipped, educated their children, debated the issues of the day, produced great art, organized politically and advanced the cause of freedom.”

Pauli Murray House (Durham, North Carolina)

This wood-frame house is the childhood home of Rev. Pauli Murray, an activist, scholar, attorney, poet, and Episcopal priest. A champion for social justice, Murray advocated for women’s and human rights, and for racial reconciliation. Her efforts were critical to retaining legal protection for women against employment discrimination. Murray was co-founder of the Congress of Racial Equality and National Organization for Women. Yet her legacy is mostly unheralded. The Pauli Murray Project, which stewards the home (a National Treasure), provides cultural programming to nurture the next generation of Pauli Murrays.

Interior of Pauli Murray House

photo by: Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice/Brad Bunyea

Interior of the Pauli Murray House, a National Treasure in Durham, North Carolina.

There is a reckoning underway which demands change. First, however, we must come to terms with American history.

Thanks to strong leadership, these historic places—and many others like them—keep the fires of hope burning for a nation of life, liberty, and justice for all. By preserving these places and telling their stories, preservationists inspire a commitment to justice.

There are similar sites in communities across America. These places merit your support. Please visit them, virtually for now, and donate to help preserve and interpret them.

Brent Leggs is the executive director of the National Trust’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund. Rob Nieweg is the vice president for Preservation Services & Outreach.

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By: Brent Leggs and Rob Nieweg

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