May 24, 2021

Processing a Painful Past Through Historic Places

Three African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund awardees transform traumatic places into sites of healing and reflection.

As a nation, how do we process the trauma of slavery, white supremacy, and oppression that has not only marked and stained American history, but also continues to have rippling—and seismic—effects today? There are sites of this pain that exist, and act as tangible reminders of a history that must be acknowledged and reckoned with despite opposition to their stories being told at all. How can historic places serve a dual purpose of being bearers of this history while also acting as places of reconciliation and healing for the future?

“These monuments of racial violence, where racism and heritage intersect in place, educate our nation about its real and shameful history,” says Brent Leggs, executive director of the National Trust’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund. “Historic sites that illuminate these truths create authentic spaces for our society to make amends and begin healing.”

These places reflect the histories that hurt and stories that should never be forgotten as they can inform our future if we are to make any progress in moving forward. Three African American Cultural Heritage Fund awardees are examples of how traumatic spaces of memory can be transformed while still serving the purpose of making visitors remember and reflect.

Historic Vernon AME Church (Tulsa, Oklahoma)

A view of a brick church in the Greenwood District of Tulsa, Oklahoma. The chapel is on the right side with white trim and stained glass windows, with an shorter hall on the left.

photo by: Marc Carlson via Flickr CC-BY-2.0

Exterior view of the Historic Vernon AME Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 2012.

The Historic Vernon AME Church's very existence is a testament to its congregants’ perseverance and resilience. Once called “Black Wall Street,” Tulsa, Oklahoma’s vibrant and prosperous predominantly Black community of Greenwood was a shining example of Black achievement and entrepreneurship.

However, its success was resented by Tulsa’s white residents and one hundred years ago on May 31, 1921, a racist white mob went on a rampage of hate and destruction for two horrifying days of terror, killing hundreds of Greenwood’s Black residents while looting and burning the neighborhood and its businesses to the ground. In the aftermath of the Greenwood Massacre’s violence, members of Vernon AME took refuge in its basement where they continued to hold services. The surviving congregants rebuilt the church and sanctuary, inscribing their names upon its stained glass windows.

A 2020 Action Fund awardee, the grant was used to restore those very same windows. “Greenwood is a beautiful place destroyed by an act of racial terror not unique to Greenwood. It is powerful that we’ll have the windows restored by the anniversary. We can show people at an intimate level what it looked like right after it was built and thanks to the restoration, we can see it through the lens of how they saw it then,” says Reverend Robert Turner, pastor of Vernon AME.

Also the recipient of a grant from the National Fund for Sacred Places, Phase II of Vernon AME’s plans includes—in addition to additional restoration work—the creation of a prayer wall for racial healing and reflection, a place at the tour’s end for persons of all nations and backgrounds to process the story they just heard. Turner was inspired after seeing how it was “so burdensome and so heavy” for visitors afterwards.

Man kissing a yellow stained glass window at the Historic Vernon AME in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

photo by: Mike Simons/Tulsa World

Reverend Turner kissing the one of the newly restored windows before they are placed back onto Vernon AME Church.

Turner wants to bring greater awareness to these issues, especially current movements to ban discussions around histories of oppression and race. He believes the church is a visual reminder offering a unique lens of the devastation of the 1921 massacre as you can see the damage and the refuge room. “It is a blessing that we have something left on Greenwood Avenue,” says Turner. “It is profound that the members of this congregation sought to stay where they were. They remained.”

He sees a throughline to today’s issues of violence against Black Americans: “For so long African Americans were killed with impunity. In 1921, there was a massacre and those who did it got away with murder. In 2021, there was still a strong possibility that George Floyd’s murderer would get away with it in the same way. I celebrate the fact the church is still here, but we have received no justice. One hundred years later, Black people still do not live in safety. Wherever we have lived in 400 years, we have never been safe. Home is where you can feel safe, but it is not for us. We stay here because despite it all, we love it and hope it will be someday.”

Shockoe Bottom (Richmond, Virginia)

View of Shockoe Bottom from the James River in Richmond Virginia

photo by: TV News Badge

View of Shockoe Bottom in 2015.

Once lined with auction houses and slave jails, from 1830 to 1865 Richmond’s Shockoe Bottom was second only to New Orleans as a major slave trading center. Despite this legacy as a place of both pain and resistance, it became a parking lot, paved over and ignored except by those who saw it as an important, sacred space.

Named to the National Trust’s America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list in 2014 and subsequently as a National Treasure, the proposal to turn the site into a sports stadium was stopped in 2015 with the help of the National Trust and its partners. In 2017, the community-driven proposal to create a memorial park gained traction, receiving an Action Fund award in 2018.

“An entire district will be centered on the historical significance of this site for the future. It is a founding district of this city, and Black lives have been a part of it the whole time,” says Ana Edwards, chair of the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project. “It is an acknowledgement that this site is central to the story of this city.”

photo by: The Center for Design Engagement

One of the renderings for the proposed Shockoe Bottom Memorial Park.

With the events of 2020-21 and the Black Lives Matter movement, Richmond became a focal point. “We’re flipping the coin and saying that slavery is important to who we are as Richmonders, despite many outspoken people who are vocal about not liking this history,” says Edwards. “People are tired of hearing ‘systemic racism,’ but it is the truth and we are still living with its implications. This is corrective work.”

The Shockoe Alliance, comprised of community, nonprofit, and business stakeholders, as well as city departments, is working to help shape the area’s future. In April 2021, the city also acquired the nearby Shockoe Hill African Burial Ground, historical successor to the first African Burial Ground, and by so doing acknowledged a willingness to deal with challenges that arise as the sites transition into public landscapes.

This includes creating frameworks for shared authority, governance, and decision-making as well as using the descendant engagement and slavery interpretation best practices rubric developed at Montpelier and supported by the Action Fund.

“The intersection between cultural and civic planning for public space—it’s a really good thing,” says Edwards. “People are rallying around this and there are far fewer objections to centering this history in the public landscape. It speaks to collaboration and people wanting a better narrative, asking, ‘Am I going to pass the old narrative to my children again, or are we going forward with a more truthful new one?’ White persons are also coming to terms with themselves and cannot disavow this past. This is the problem with all groups dealing with truth and reconciliation. These are cycles that will continue.”

Freedom House (Alexandria, Virginia)

Located in a three-story brick rowhouse in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia, Freedom House—which recieved an Action Fund award in 2018—was once part of a larger, block-long complex of jails and pens for enslaved persons. From 1828 to 1836, it was the headquarters for notorious slave traders Franklin and Armfield, who were instrumental in the domestic slave trade, exporting thousands of enslaved persons to cotton and sugar plantations in the Deep South. The wealth built upon the backs of the domestic slave trade funded and involved other institutions, such as Angola Prison and Fairview Country Club.

“We want to be honest in our interpretation of Alexandria’s African American history,” says Audrey Davis, director of the Alexandria Black History Museum and one of the core team leaders at Freedom House. They hope that their work will ground visitors in the story of the domestic slave trade, as visitors know more about the transatlantic slave trade. “Franklin and Armfield and the other traffickers of the enslaved working out of Freedom House came into the picture in a different century. The 19th-century economy made it a perfect storm for the domestic slave trade. It’s a sad and terrible story, but it’s one we need to tell.”
Exterior view of a brick rowhouse in Old Town Alexandria with trees along the street.

photo by: Eric Patten/Office of Historic Alexandria)

Exterior view of Freedom House in Old Town Alexandria.

Davis wants others to understand what life was like for enslaved and free Black Americans in Alexandria during this period. The complex was a horrific and constant reminder that their fate could change at any moment, their families separated, and coffles of men, women, and children must have been a terrifying sight. “You had no agency over your life and how you lived it," says Davis. "African Americans lived with fear and restrictions in every part of their life. Horrific violations were committed against them and the white community was rarely held to account for their crimes.”

There is also a connection between the racial violence and intimidation perpetrated by whites against Black Americans in the past to ways it happens today.

“We want to educate others about the racial violence that happened here in Alexandria, including two lynchings in the 1890s,” says Davis. "African American life has been controlled by intimidation and laws meant to restrict their freedom. Lynching was a public way to control the Black population. The abuse of Black bodies during lynchings and the collecting of Black body parts as souvenirs by white mobs were reminders of white supremacy. Even today the noose has the power to strike fear and to intimidate. There is a language of intimidation and one of the goals of the Alexandria Community Remembrance Project is to educate about that history.”

In partnership with the Equal Justice Initiative, the project is a city-wide initiative to help the city understand its history of racial terror hate crimes and work towards creating a community bound by equity and inclusion.

A close up of a brick building with a red door. On the right side of the image is a man reading a historic marker describing the history of the building.

photo by: Photo by R. Kennedy for ACVA

Close up of the historic marker at Freedom House.

All three of these sites emphasize how if a history is not understood or known, there are repercussions for the understanding the present. “You have to understand there is trauma for Black Americans in interpreting this history and reopening old wounds, but it is necessary. This is a brutal history often without a happy ending, but this is American history and the reality for millions of Black Americans.” says Davis. “Through Freedom House we had an amazing opportunity to tell these stories and it is our duty of museum professionals and historians to be truth tellers. These sites of terror can be sites of reconciliation and honest discussion about race. They can be so much more if we are willing to do the painful work.”

Yes, these sites are places of pain, but they can also act as places of memory for both descendants and visitors alike, serving to remind us that we must work hard for change in the present to achieve the future that we want. It takes community leaders, new investment, and altruism to steward a history that many Americans want to forget. Preservation can ensure that a forgetful society never forgets its full history.

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Lawana is the program officer for the National Trust's African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund.

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