Preserving Black Culture

February 27, 2020 | Preserving Black Culture | By Brent Leggs, Executive Director of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund of the National Trust for Historic Preservation

NTHP_AACHAF_LOGO_Black.png“The past and future merge to meet us here,” Beyoncé tells us in her highly acclaimed visual album, Lemonade. As it happens, her words reveal the crux of America’s current debate over how our collective past is represented in our culture and public spaces. In everything from the musical Hamilton, to the fate of Confederate monuments, the central question of how our history is embodied in our collective culture and landscape has returned with fresh urgency.

That’s why it’s time for action. This renewed reckoning with our past has re-galvanized diverse communities and the African American-led activist movement to break down barriers and right misconceptions about the American identity. At the National Trust for Historic Preservation, our African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund is helping to meet the responsibilities of this critical movement.

The Action Fund is a $25 million effort to unearth a narrative that expands our understanding and inspires a new generation to advocate for historic African American places. We aim to empower our communities with the tools to prevent the destruction of their physical history, as has happened far too often, from “urban renewal” and an undervalued cultural heritage. And, we are working to demonstrate how preservation can revitalize disinvested communities while addressing social and economic issues.

As historic buildings age, the challenges of preserving them and the neighborhoods they anchor multiply. Preservation works to facilitate the survival of these historic sites. Preservation promotes responsible and equitable development. Preservation confronts continual environmental disruption. When years of divestment and poor maintenance leave primarily African American neighborhoods with vacant and dilapidated buildings, public officials and citizens often seek a quick solution by razing the deteriorated structures and destroying the neighborhood’s soul.

As a new movement for justice, activists must work together to reuse older buildings, support more minority-and women-owned businesses, and address urban issues of affordability and displacement. In short, cities need old buildings and new solutions for revitalization. Cities need partnerships to restore vitality and livability to the historic urban environment. Cities need preservationists to foster intimate social connection, place making, and well-being that helps keep individuals physically, culturally, and psychologically healthy.

We know firsthand that saving African American historic places can enhance our present debates. In Virginia, citizens are linking together commemoration, education, and economic development to advocate on behalf of Richmond’s Shockoe Bottom, formerly the second largest slave trade center only in importance to New Orleans between 1830 and 1865. The A. G. Gaston Motel in Birmingham, known for its civil rights history, is being restored and activated as a catalyst for urban regeneration and entrepreneurship. Wilfandel Ladies Club in Los Angeles is a lasting testimony to the visionary spirit and leadership of African American women. These sites of enslavement, activism, and achievement reflect the stories that shaped us today.

This month and every month, we at the National Trust seek to elevate a more honest and complete history. We feel passionately that Black culture, landscapes, and main streets matter – that our historic neighborhoods matter. By saving African American places, we not only celebrate the tremendous impact that African Americans have made to the life of our nation, we transmit that impact to the present and future. History shows us that Black women and men are the vanguards of social change and culture keepers of our shared identity. Join us in the renewed effort. Join us to realize a more diverse and equitable profession and to increase the relevancy and impact of preservation nationally.

About the Author

Brent Leggs is the Executive Director of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.