March 9, 2022

People Saving Places: Sidney Clifton and The Clifton House

All around us, people are saving historic places. Whether they are community activists, grassroots advocates, architects, or formally trained preservationists, they each bring with them a passion for the past and a drive to protect the cultural heritage all around us. And during Women’s History Month—and as part of our campaign for Where Women Made History—we are interviewing five women who illustrate the many ways we can protect historic spaces. First up: Sidney Clifton, daughter of acclaimed poet and author Lucille Clifton, and president of The Clifton House, a workshop space for artists and writers based in the Clifton family's former home.

Two children sitting on the front porch of a home with a porch.

photo by: Estate of Lucille Clifton

Alexia and Gillian Clifton (two of Lucille Clifton's children) on the front porch of what is now the Clifton House.

A view of the exterior of The Clifton House which is blue with a wide front porch and a series of steps leading up to the entrance.

photo by: The Clifton House

Exterior of The Clifton House in Baltimore, Maryland. This image is an exterior shot that is part of a virtual tour available on the Clifton House website (linked in the transcript below).

With over twenty years’ experience as an executive producer and development executive of animated live-action content, Sidney Clifton serves as Jim Henson Company’s senior vice president of animation and mixed media, and as a senior consultant with Black Women Animate. But the role closest to her heart is as the president of The Clifton House, a workshop and retreat space for writers and artists in the home she shared with her five siblings and parents—community activist Fred Clifton, and renowned poet and activist Lucille Clifton.

Located in Baltimore, Maryland, The Clifton House—an awardee of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund—seeks to “ensure that emerging storytellers of all ages are equipped with resources to thrive in their respective artforms regardless of formal training.”

Listen to Sidney Clifton describe, in her own words, the work to restore and preserve The Clifton House, as well as her deeper connection to historic spaces.

In Her Own Words

My name is Sidney Clifton and I am the president of The Clifton House, a writers' and artists' workshop space I established to continue the legacy of my parents—community activist Fred Clifton and National Book Award-winning poet and children’s book author Lucille Clifton.

What has surprised me most about working to preserve the house is how alive the space really is. Even after 40 years, there are some places, some areas of the house that need more restoration than others, but for the most part, it's in really, great shape, and the fact that I could go in and still see, and feel, what I felt when my family lived there has been an amazing and beautiful surprise.

The biggest challenge in protecting my mother's legacy has been in the business of that protection. Certainly her work has resonated with people worldwide for years, but now in creating this foundation in her name, finding the right team, putting the right team members in place at the right time and gathering all these people with this one vision to be able to create that, has been a bit of a challenge, particularly given the fact that I'm in Los Angeles, but we're getting it done, so that's wonderful.

This distance is also the biggest challenge about restoring the house. I just have to fly back and forth. There are some things you can do virtually, some you cannot. And so, overseeing restorations and such, that has been the biggest challenge for me.

 A headshot of a woman looking at the camera with a her head propped on her her fingers.

photo by: Sidney Clifton

Sidney Clifton

What excites me most about the project going forward is the ability for us to not only uplift and amplify my mother's legacy, but to serve the creative community. That's what her work was about. That's what her work does on such a deep and again, global level. Certainly, she has had fans worldwide for years, and her work serves the community by empowering and uplifting underserved voices. That's what we're going to be doing with this project, not only in serving her legacy, but providing this place for people to go and feel empowered and nurtured in their work. So, the service to community is the most exciting piece of this project.

My favorite sites of cultural heritage fall into a couple of buckets. There are places that are very specific. Some I may or may not have visited yet, like the Langston Hughes House, like the Smithsonian museum of African American history. But there are also places that are not necessarily that specific.

For example, when I was in North Carolina working on a project, I visited the God's Acre Cemetery in Winston-Salem. I visited the Moravian Church. I visited Old Salem. I love places where people worked, and lived, and walked, and you can feel what they felt. You can see what they saw, you can touch, and really be immersed in their worlds, any place that is available like that—I just love. So, I think the reality is I don't know that I have one favorite. All of them speak to me in very, very different ways.

I had been so impressed and appreciative of the National Trust’s support of this project. And my mother's work, I mean, has been truly transformative for me. And to be able to be in community with a group of people who are this dedicated to history and restoration and culture and all the empowering things that are that go along with that, I'm truly, truly grateful. My level of gratitude is without bound.

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While her day job is the associate director of content at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Priya spends other waking moments musing, writing, and learning about how the public engages and embraces history.

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