February 12, 2024

Reflections on A Legacy of Preservation in North Carolina

In 2023 Myrick Howard received the highest honor in preservation, the Louise du Pont Crowninshield Award.

Forty-eight years ago, I was a graduate student sitting in the audience at my first National Trust for Historic Preservation meeting. I was a quiet, gay, working-class kid—not exactly the norm in Mobile, Alabama. But I found preservationists to be a welcoming bunch of souls.

Through the years, I have been mentored by several great preservation leaders who helped me find my place. Jim Gray, a gentleman with years of preservation experience, hired me straight out of law school at age 25. A month later he retired, setting the stage for me to become the executive director of Preservation North Carolina (PNC). Jim continued to mentor me for years after he retired.

Our life stories couldn’t have been more different. His father ran a huge tobacco company and major bank. Jim’s cousin, Gordon Gray, was one of the founders of the National Trust. On the other hand, my father was a mechanist in a cigarette factory. My mother was school secretary. My family didn’t flee to the suburbs. We stayed put in the bungalow my grandfather built.

Our different backgrounds didn’t matter. Jim and I both shared a passion for place…and the diverse people whose stories they told. We had common ground.

Another mentor was Bob Stipe, a lawyer, writer and educator whose course got me interested in preservation. With Bob’s encouragement, I developed a passion for revolving funds.

J. Myrick Howards standing in front of a historic house which served as the first headquarters of Preservation North Carolina.

photo by: Fayetteville Observer

J. Myrick Howard in front of Preservation North Carolina's first HQ office, the Horton-Beckham-Bretsch House (Photo c. 1982).

Preservation as Property Work

During my career, PNC focused like a laser beam on preservation as property work. Real estate is the name of the game. We bought and sold hundreds of endangered properties and protected hundreds more with easements.

For the last 35 years, I’ve also taught Bob’s course and watched the careers of my own former students. For example, Andrew Stewart’s master’s project in 2006 was to conceptualize and advocate for an enhanced tax credit for the renovation of vacant industrial buildings.

Shortly after he graduated, Andrew got to watch from the legislative gallery as his bill was enacted. It has since generated more than $2.5 billion of historic rehab—yes, billion. The credit is still in place and attracting new investment, years after the pilot project first passed. Not bad for a student project!

One of the largest beneficiaries of the North Carolina tax credits was the factory where my father once worked. For years it stood vacant and blighted. Now, it’s the workplace for more employees than the tobacco company ever had. The new jobs are high-tech and high-paying. Its surroundings are thriving. My hometown has been greatly enhanced by this project.

Through PNC’s direct property work, two entire textile mill villages have been saved—with cumulatively more than 85 houses, plus the mill, office and store in each. Total investment: north of $60 million! All are protected in perpetuity by preservation covenants. In both of the mill villages, local residents have created museums to tell the stories of working-class communities.

In two other cities, PNC renovated and sold more than a dozen vacant mill houses into safe, attractive, and imminently affordable housing. Our work sparked new interest in areas that had been written off.

Elsewhere Preservation NC has helped create more than 2,000 units of affordable housing, some in mill buildings!

As a working-class kid, I’ve especially enjoyed watching these factories and mill villages come back to life.

Preserving Places to Understand our World

As a Southerner who grew up during the Civil Rights era, I’ve also strived to preserve buildings of significance to African Americans. Each building has its own story and scores of people who treasure them. Those stories— both inspiring (reflecting determination and resilience) and tragic (bearing witness to generations of discrimination)—are important today in understanding our own world.

View of a man with a hardhat on his head holding a microphone.

photo by: Tammy Cantrell, Encaptured & Co

Photo of the author, Myrick Howard.

PNC renovated two Freedmen’s homes for its headquarters office. After the Civil War, hundreds of formerly enslaved people settled in the Black community of Oberlin near Raleigh. Both born into slavery, Willis Graves, a brickmason, and his wife Eleanor built an impressive home and sent each of their six children to college. When the Graves House was about to be destroyed, PNC saved it as well as another endangered Oberlin home, two of only five surviving landmarks in Oberlin.

The Graves left Raleigh during the Great Migration and thrived elsewhere. In the process of the saving the houses, we learned about their remarkable heritage. For example, Bill (Willis Jr.) was an early Civil Rights attorney in Detroit who worked with Thurgood Marshall on the U.S. Supreme Court case invalidating racially restricted covenants. Today, Graves family members continue to be leaders in numerous professions from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., and they have been delighted by our preservation of their ancestral homeplace.

In Pittsboro, PNC holds a preservation easement on the home of Lewis Freeman, whose life helps tell the complex and devastating history of slavery in America. Freeman, a successful free Black man in the early 19th century, had to purchase his wife and his own children. As a free Black man he couldn’t legally “free” them, so when his wife died, she was still his slave. He had to sell his children to a white lawyer to take them to New York to manumit (liberate) them. Once free, his children were then prohibited by law from returning to North Carolina.

The Graves-Fields and Hall Houses.

photo by: Preservation North Carolina, CCCC J. Lamb

Exterior of the Graves-Fields and Hall Houses in Oberlin Village.

Instead, they thrived in D.C. Lewis’s grandson was the first Black American to graduate from Harvard in dentistry, and Lewis’s great-great-grandson, Robert Weaver, was the first Black American to be appointed to a U.S. Cabinet-level position. The Department of Housing and Urban Development headquarters is named for him. Lewis Freeman’s home in Pittsboro makes the story so much richer.

PNC is now working on a major educational program about Black builders and architects. We use buildings, both large and small, to tell the hidden and complicated stories of race in America. Each featured building literally becomes common ground.

Pay it Forward

We preservationists have the opportunity and the obligation to be teachers in our daily work. You don’t have to work too long with buildings and places to witness the undeniable tangible evidence of racial discrimination and wealth inequality in the United States. We need to expand our role in the public realm as educators.

At the end of the day, however, let’s not lose sight of the fundamental need to preserve the buildings. When the buildings are gone, so go the stories.

I challenge you to be disciplined in your thinking about how to save buildings. We have real estate tools. We need to fearlessly and strategically use them. We also need to be developing new tools that work in overheated urban markets as well as languishing rural areas.

I’ve had a fulfilling career in preservation, surrounded by remarkable staff, board, and fellow colleagues from around the country who taught me so much. Like them, I hope I too have helped pay it forward.

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Myrick Howard, recipient of the 2023 Louise du Pont Crowninshield Award, is the former president of Preservation North Carolina.

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