February 4, 2013

Preserving African-American Historic Places: New Resource Available

  • By: National Trust for Historic Preservation

Written by Brent Leggs, Harvard Loeb Fellow, Boston Field Office

This post was adapted from its original version on the Preservation Leadership Forum blog.

At the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tenn., visitors can tour the Lorraine Hotel, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was killed. Credit: Isaac Singleton Photography, flickr
At the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tenn., visitors can tour the Lorraine Hotel, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was killed.

In 2004 my job as research assistant for the Kentucky Heritage Council was to inventory Rosenwald Schools in Kentucky. I traveled across the state to document what were the most advanced, architecturally designed school buildings constructed for African-American students between 1917 and 1932.

I was always excited when I found a Rosenwald School standing. Many times, however, nothing was left. It was as if these places had never existed; only landscapes remained, rich with memories of students walking to school. In many cases entire communities had disappeared. People had left rural areas for the big city, leaving significant parts of the history of African-Americans behind. I realized these stories would be all but erased from memory if we didn’t act to protect them.

My experience has shown me that the preservation of historic African-American sites often happens on an informal basis. To be sure, some significant sites associated with African American history are formally recognized and serve as permanent reminders about our ancestors and their journey in America -- for example, the African Meeting House in Boston or the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. But relatively few places that are important to or representative of the African American experience enjoy this level of recognition.

Sign for the Weeksville farmer's market. Credit: H.L.I.T., flickr
Part of the sign for the Weeksville Heritage Center farmer's market.

In the 1960s, grassroots activists new to preservation established the first wave of historic preservation activity in the black community. Without any formal training in historic preservation, these champions saved many African-American historic places through an organic learning process, resilience, and unwavering commitment for their mission.

For example, when community activist Joan Maynard learned in the late 1960s about Weeksville, a once-vibrant but later forgotten African-American village in Brooklyn founded in the 1830s, she felt compelled to revive some of its buildings as tangible reminders of its people and their accomplishments. She was motivated by the desire to instill pride in current African-American residents in the area, especially young people.

Marshaling help from students, community groups, and preservationists, she accomplished her goal when three houses of Weeksville opened to the public in 2005. The Weeksville Heritage Center she once led continues to expand and thrive.

Since then a new wave of African-American preservationists has gotten involved in saving places all across America. These new advocates include retirees, architects, nonprofit consultants, historians, and recent graduates of historic preservation programs. They are advancing preservation by establishing networks that foster cross-mentoring and stronger professional relationships.

African Meeting House, Boston MA. Credit: Max van Balgooy
African Meeting House in Boston.

So why should we care about historic African-American theaters, churches, schools, residences, gardens, neighborhoods, main streets, burial grounds, parks, hotels, juke joints, and recording studios? Consider the following:

  • African-American scholar James Horton says that a single visit to a history site makes a life once lived real. For example, visitors can walk up the narrow and crooked steps to the slave galleries inside St. Augustine’s Church in New York City and see where African-Americans were forced to sit during religious services for much of the 19th century. At this place, visitors can experience tangible, authentic history.
  • Preservation contributes much to a forgetful society. It empowers black youth by revealing historical themes besides slavery, including entrepreneurship, civil rights, entertainment, sports, education, and political activism. The site where hip-hop was founded in the Bronx brings life to the story of a revolution in music. Seeing firsthand the homes of civil rights activists and the Alabama churches that served as their gathering places reminds a younger generation how a nonviolent movement changed this nation.
  • We draw attention to the contributions of both ordinary and extraordinary people. Such stories might otherwise be lost because urban renewal and the out-migration of blacks destroyed or led to the abandonment of many African-American communities. By saving African-American landmarks we can stimulate revitalization and foster interest in places that today seem to exist without history or meaning. Indeed, these places can serve as anchors reviving our sense of community.

To help local advocates preserve African-American historic sites, especially those individuals new to preservation, the National Trust has published a basic primer, Preserving African American Historic Places.

This 24-page publication presents an overview of traditional preservation networks and their roles, offers tips on how to get preservation underway in your community, and looks at the various legal and financial tools that help protect historic properties. The booklet also includes six case studies to illustrate various strategies for preserving and honoring historic places associated with African-American history.

Email Brent Leggs to order your free copy or download the PDF.

We believe all Americans deserve to see their history in the places that surround us. As a nation, we have work to do to fill in the gaps of our cultural heritage.

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