The recent killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery have rightfully placed a national spotlight on the institutional racism that continues to plague the United States. And while it would be easy to think that architecture has little to do with racial justice and civil rights, the fight to save African American historic places proves that preservation is political. If we want to educate future generations about Black history in America, we need to work to preserve Black historic sites now.
“I love to have this multisensory experience with places. I love to be able to touch the walls. I love to hear the creaking floor boards. I love to smell the environment,” says Brent Leggs, executive director of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund. Leggs is one of America’s few Black preservationists—African Americans constitute just 1% of professional preservationists in the U.S., according to the New Yorker—and he was instrumental in the creation of the Action Fund, the largest preservation campaign ever undertaken in support of African American historic sites. The campaign is long overdue.
Historically, the preservation movement in the U.S. has invested in maintaining white spaces, including former presidents’ homes and the estates of tycoons like John D. Rockefeller. For much of American history, little was done to protect Black spaces. Of the nearly 95,000 entries on the National Register of Historic Places, only 2% focuses on the experience of Black Americans.
“I think it’s undeniable that there was—like every institution within this country—structural racism, and it’s pervasive through our society. We know that, and we can’t deny that it was clearly a part of our preservation movement in some ways,” Paul Edmondson, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, tells AD. “I think every institution across the United States needs to examine itself, and we are certainly doing that and will do that. It’s an important time to make this connection and to shine a light on what we in the preservation field can do to contribute to this national conversation.”
Fortunately, things are changing, and the creation of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund following the violent white-nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 is a big part of that. The National Trust for Historic Preservation is committed to telling the full story, which includes shedding light on the lives of marginalized communities, including Black, LGBTQ, Native American, and Latinx American communities. Edmondson calls the Action Fund in particular “the crossroads of history and social justice” and adds that “it’s been one of our most successful programs.”
“In the last two years, we’ve actually received almost 2,000 proposals requesting nearly $190 million, and by this July we will have invested about $4.3 million in 60 preservation projects,” Leggs tells AD. Leggs estimates he has visited about half of the 38 recipients of the grants awarded in 2018 and 2019, which include the Langston Hughes House in New York’s Harlem neighborhood, the Harriet Tubman Home in Auburn, New York, and Boston’s African Meeting House—the oldest extant Black church in the U.S.—as well as lesser-known sites like the God’s Little Acre cemetery in Newport, Rhode Island, and the Emmett and Mamie Till Interpretive Center in the Mississippi courthouse where the murderers of 14-year-old Emmett Till were acquitted by an all-white jury in 1955, spurring the civil rights movement.
“We want to highlight stories across time and geography, and it’s important for us to showcase the diversity of architecture and diversity of places,” Leggs says, explaining that when selecting grantees, he and his team strive to highlight both urban and rural sites and celebrate historical figures as well as stories of everyday life.
The threats to historic sites such as these are numerous and range from neglect and decay to gentrification and the encroachment of Airbnbs on historically Black neighborhoods. “Tremé is the oldest African American neighborhood in the country,” says Danielle Del Sol, executive director of the Preservation Resource Center of New Orleans, one of the Action Fund’s 2019 grantees. “It has been home for 300 years to free people of color and African Americans who produced the New Orleans we know and love today: musicians creating jazz, the origins of incredible Creole cuisine, the craftspeople who built our incredible historic homes across the city, origins of parading culture and social-aid-and-pleasure groups that have endured generations.”
Yet, as Del Sol explains it, the rise of Airbnb and speculative development is pricing Tremé’s longtime residents out. Many can no longer afford rising property taxes, let alone the upkeep necessary to maintain their historic homes according to the rules set forth by the City of New Orleans’s Historic District Landmarks Commission. According to Del Sol, the grant her organization received from the National Trust’s Action Fund was instrumental in launching a program to provide free repairs to low-income homeowners in Tremé. Since receiving the grant, PRCNO tripled the amount of money raised and is now repairing its fifth home in the neighborhood.
Another grantee, Keith Stokes, whose own ancestors are buried in God’s Little Acre, is using the $50,000 grant to preserve 200 markers dating back to the 18th and 19th centuries. What makes the cemetery so significant is that it not only has the largest and oldest collection of African burial markers in the U.S. but it also has documentation that tells the stories of the people buried there and their journeys between the West Indies, Africa, and America. “Our ongoing efforts have been to preserve and restore not only the ancient burial markers but also interpret the very lives and memory of the people,” Stokes tells AD. “As my Newport grandmother (who is also buried in God’s Little Acre) would remind me as a child, ‘Slavery is how we got here, but it tells you little to who we are as a people.’”
Other sites celebrate the achievements of Black Americans, such as NAACP cofounder W.E.B. DuBois, Nat King Cole, John Coltrane, and Pauli Murray, an activist, lawyer, Episcopal priest, feminist, poet, and member of the LGBTQ community. “Black history is American history and it should be preserved as such,” Leggs states. He is preparing to announce the Action Fund’s 2020 grantees in July, and though he wouldn’t reveal any specifics yet, he revealed that the recipients include sites rooted in racial justice from the 1860s through the 20th century, historic theaters that remain assets in Black neighborhoods, iconic civil rights landmarks from the 1960s, and a site connected to important innovations in science and medicine. Leggs affirmed, “The projects span centuries and highlight the breadth of Black contributions and sacrifice made by African Americans.”
Leggs emphasized that the important work he’s doing was made possible by the generous support of the Action Fund’s top donors: the Ford Foundation, the JPB Foundation, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. To support the preservation of Black historic sites, you can take the pledge or donate to the Action Fund. Leggs also encourages people to seek out the sites in their own community and ask them what they need—many would welcome volunteers or board members. “I would encourage all Americans to support, visit, and learn from African American historic places because historic sites that bring forward a diverse and inclusive narrative play a crucial role in redefining our collective history and our collective understanding of ourselves as a nation,” he says.
Originally Appeared on Architectural Digest