The “Transcendent” Nature of Preserving African American Places
In November 2017, National Trust president Stephanie Meeks announced the launch of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, the largest fundraising and historic preservation campaign ever undertaken on behalf of black history by a private nonprofit. It will draw attention to the remarkable stories that evoke centuries of African American activism and achievement, and the integral role they play in the fabric of American society. Most importantly, the Action Fund will work with communities to protect and preserve significant African American historic places by investing $25 million over the next several years.
We sat down with Brent Leggs, executive director of the Action Fund, to learn more about its significance and impact on saving historic African American places.
What led the National Trust to implement the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, and what is its significance?
Part of the impetus for creating the Action Fund were the events in Charlottesville. Historic preservation is now at the forefront of a national conversation where history, culture, and public spaces collided, forcing our nation to face the unfinished business of race, emancipation, and equality. It was evident that the human conflict witnessed by American citizens and the world demanded national leadership—a leadership absent in this moment of national crisis. We at the National Trust felt a social and professional responsibility to help lead our country toward its moral compass and ideals. Through the power of historic preservation, we seek to expand the public’s understanding of history and reconstruct national identity for the benefit of us all. Our reckoning of the past is to tell the full American history and foster truth, racial healing, and social justice. This is both our inspiration and aspiration.
Why is it imperative to not only preserve black history, but to push it towards the forefront of preservation?
We also understood that the time is now to transform historic preservation practice, instill a national ethic for preserving our shared diversity, and pay homage to African American-led history pioneers like Carter G. Woodson, the Father of Black History, and the National Association of Colored Women. In 1917, the Association launched a six-year fundraising and preservation campaign to restore Frederick Douglass’ home Cedar Hill in Washington, DC. This early effort is one of the first national campaigns led by the African American community to honor an iconic historical figure. Their vision to “inspire our youth to go forth like Douglass and fight to win” is still relevant today. We hope that all Americans will go forth together to save places of cultural memory that matter to them.
The work of the Action Fund empowers grassroots leaders and stewards with the tools and equity investment necessary to protect and preserve a rich tapestry of African American life. These preservationists have done so much with so little, and they must be especially creative and innovative in their efforts to preserve the irreplaceable cultural heritage of our nation. African American historic preservation projects are some of the most underfunded in the U.S. The Action Fund helps to raise awareness about the inequity in the field of preservation and ensure that these projects are funded and resourced in a way that sustains them. Looking ahead, the work of the Action Fund will become a roadmap for other affinity communities over the next 25 years, from Latino and Asian Americans, to women’s and LGBT history, and more.
I’m interested in hearing more about what you said regarding grassroots organizations. How might the Action Fund help to elevate these groups and increase the visibility of their work?
Most preservation work is grassroots driven—it’s almost all volunteer-driven—and these committed and altruistic volunteers need our help. But it can take time for them to build their technical capacity in historic preservation, raise national awareness of their work, and secure new and ongoing funding. At the National Trust, we’ve spent over two decades increasing the capacity and visibility of grassroots organizations.
Through the Action Fund and particularly the national grant program, we will help to fund their projects, advance their mission, and shine a national spotlight both on the physical and cultural legacy of black America and those stewards who are working to save it. We at the National Trust believe it’s important for us to elevate their work, because these stewards are the soul and heartbeat of historic preservation.
What other factors do you consider when preserving historic African American places?
We’re exploring National Treasures this year that highlight intersectionality, alongside the stories of African American music, art, culture, and politics, in a way that will begin to shed the multiple layers of stories embedded in these places. One of the Action Fund’s key messages of honoring and preserving sites of activism, achievement, and community, as well as sites of our painful past, gives us the flexibility to align these projects across the many spectrums of American history.
What is the importance of preserving historic African American places, beyond the written word? What value does preserving physical places add to our national identity?
There is power in identity. There is power in truth and reconciliation. There is power in a people-centered historic preservation movement. When we create a landscape that speaks truthfully about where we are and where we come from, we begin to relate to one another better, and we have greater self-awareness about our cultural and individual identities. I believe that physical and natural places in history create a multi-sensory experience that goes beyond the five senses. Preservation has a transcendent, spiritual quality that connects us to our ancestors—and our past. I think that helps to stimulate our well-being and our sense of community.
Historian Carter G. Woodson once said, “Those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history.” Without the protection and preservation of the imbued beauty, uniqueness, and significance of African American historic places, we are unable to influence and shape a more honest American identity. This month and all year, we must remember our service to humanity and duty to tell the full history for the present and future. This is the transcendent nature of historic preservation.