October 1, 2020

How Mapping the Chesapeake Watershed Will Illuminate African American History

In recent years, historic preservationists have acknowledged that historic sites and landscapes important to people of color are underrepresented in documentation and conservation priorities—a deficit that has deep repercussions for efforts to tell the full American story. In an often-cited 2014 study, the National Park Service found that less than 8% of National Register and NHL designations reflect the stories of communities considered underrepresented by the NPS, including African American, Asian American, American Indian, American Latino, Native Alaskan, Native Hawaiian, and LGBTQ.

Because historic preservation traditionally relies heavily on existing documentation for decision-making, this lack of data leads to these places being underrepresented or underfunded in historic preservation, conservation, and interpretation efforts. In turn, this results in less engagement of the conservation and preservation community with communities of color, and vice-versa. One way to address this shortfall is through projects that specifically work to identify and acknowledge places significant to these communities, such as the Chesapeake Mapping Initiative.

Mapping the Chesapeake Watershed

The National Trust for Historic Preservation is poised to begin a new long-term project,“Documenting Chesapeake Watershed Sites and Landscapes Important to African Americans,” or the Chesapeake Mapping Initiative. This initiative is intended to ensure that places important to African Americans are better represented in land conservation priorities in the Chesapeake Bay Region, and ultimately that more of those places are conserved through land protection and historic preservation. It will also lay the groundwork for future mapping efforts for African American historic resources by assessing the effectiveness of different project methodologies. This effort will be a collaboration among the National Trust, the National Park Service Chesapeake Bay, the states of Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia; and the Chesapeake Conservation Partnership.

Why mapping? In order to avoid adverse effects to resources and plan to recognize their historic significance, we must first know where to find them. Mapping makes it possible to update conservation priorities and collaborate with landowners and communities on protection and preservation efforts. Mapping data can also be used by infrastructure project developers to identify historic resources during early project development phases so that negative impacts to the sites can be avoided and minimized. It can also generate information that can be the basis for new or expanded interpretation initiatives. By focusing mapping efforts on communities that have been underserved, we can ensure that these communities are part of the conversation when developing new priorities for preservation and conservation.

This project is going to map the experiences of African Americans along the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. This image shows African American's preparing crabs for sale for one of many seafood markets along the bay. (c. 1905). | Credit: Library of Congress

The multi-state partnership behind the Chesapeake Mapping Initiative will undertake unique pilot projects in Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania to identify sites and landscapes significant to African American history and to gather baseline GIS data on these historic places. National Trust staff have been working with State Historic Preservation Offices to design pilot projects that respond to each state’s survey priorities. As part of the survey effort, project partners will reach out to local communities to share information and collect feedback. The work will also be guided by an outside advisory committee of professionals dedicated to preserving African American history.

Once collected, data from this project will be available through state-level Cultural Resource Information Systems and the Chesapeake Conservation Partnership’s Chesapeake Conservation Atlas to inform land use and planning decisions. Through this work the National Trust intends to learn more about the challenges of collecting this data and identify opportunities to improve and support future survey efforts. Work is expected to begin the fall of 2020 and continue through early 2022.

This project is supported by the National Trust’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, financial assistance from the National Park Service Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network, and additional grant funding from the Maryland Heritage Areas Authority. The Virginia Department of Historic Resources, the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ Community Partnerships Program, and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission have also pledged funding support

For ongoing updates as work progresses, follow the National Trust’s social media and sign up for updates from the Chesapeake Conservation Partnership.

This Project has been financed in part with State Funds from the Maryland Heritage Areas Authority, an instrumentality of the State of Maryland. However, the contents and opinions do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Maryland Heritage Areas Authority.

Additional funding support is provided through the National Park Service Chesapeake Bay Gateways Program, and the DCNR Community Conservation Partnerships Program

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Kendra Parzen was a field officer with the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

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