Women Who Work to Tell the Full History
While it’s incredibly important to shine a spotlight on the ways women contributed to American society throughout history (and the ways those women have historically been ignored), it’s equally important to lift up women who are doing significant work in preserving our history today.
Eleven women are on the Advisory Council for the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, the largest preservation campaign ever undertaken on behalf of African American history. Not all of these women are preservationists by name, but their work to tell the full history of diverse individuals and communities led to their inclusion on the Advisory Council. In the list below, we highlight some of these women’s important work on the local and national stage.
Actor and director Phylicia Rashad is a co-chair of the Advisory Council. Her work in preservation, though less familiar to most than her work as an actor, is no less significant. Rashad purchased the boy’s dormitory and 12 surrounding acres at a historically African American school in Chester, South Carolina, in 1999 with the intent to convert it into a cultural arts center called the Brainerd Center.
Rashad’s mother was in the final graduating class of the school, then known as Brainerd Institute. Its original mission was to educate and train formerly enslaved men and women for the workforce. By the time of its closure in 1939, the school encompassed 18 acres and taught African American children in first through 12th grade.
Dr. Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham
Dr. Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham has been a tenured faculty member at Harvard University since 1993. Her dedication to preserving African American stories shines through both in her work as a professor and as the Chairwoman of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH).
In a 2017 interview with Huffington Post, Dr. Higginbotham explains that the 101-year-old national organization recognizes “that knowledge of the black past cannot be separated from the identification and preservation of places that symbolize the historical journey of black people in America.”
ASALH, whose mission is to understand and preserve information about black life, history, and culture, is best known for creating and promoting Black History Month. The organization has also coordinated closely with the National Park Service to continue preserving significant historic sites related to African American history, something Dr. Higginbotham values deeply.
“There are some historic places that I feel I have known and revered all my life,” Dr. Higginbotham says. “They are, to me, the essence of black history."
The first person of color to Chair the Board of Trustees for the National Trust, Marita Rivero became the Executive Director of the Museum of African American History, Boston and Nantucket, in 2015. Rivero was previously a long-time member of the MAAH board of directors and had a long career at public broadcasting network WBGH, where she produced programming such as Peabody and Emmy Award-winning television show Africans in America.
MAAH presents the profound history of New England’s 18th- and 19th-century black abolitionist and entrepreneurial communities through its stewardship of historic landmarks, including the African Meeting House and Seneca Boston-Florence Higginbotham House on Nantucket; the African Meeting House and Abiel Smith School on Beacon Hill; and Black Heritage Trails in Boston and Nantucket.
Home to businesses, residents, institutions, and the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site, the Atlanta neighborhood of Sweet Auburn—once known as “the richest Negro street in the world"—has largely been revitalized thanks to the efforts of Mtamanika Youngblood. Youngblood is currently the President and CEO of Sweet Auburn Works, in a continuation of the work she started with the Historic District Development Corporation (HDCC) in 1992.
Under Youngblood’s tenure as executive director at HDCC, the Sweet Auburn neighborhood was transformed into a dynamic, economically viable place, “without displacing residents or sacrificing historic integrity,” according to a 2016 story in Atlanta magazine. She preserved homes and repurposed industrial spaces, all while accommodating the neighborhood’s low-income community.
At Sweet Auburn Works, Youngblood has shifted her focus to the neighborhood’s small business corridor, in an effort to recreate its 1950s financial success during Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s childhood. Between 2015 and 2017, Sweet Auburn saw over $155 million in community investment and is expecting another $514 million by 2020—enough to create 4,021 residential units, 4,300 square feet of retail and office space, and 532,5000 square feet of institutional space.