From New York to Alabama to Oregon, many tangible displays of African American culture and heritage are in deep disrepair. Due to a lack of recognition and funding, these spaces are slowly being lost before their full story can be told.
But a grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation will help maintain 27 historic sites that showcase African American perseverance, activism and contributions to the nation.
The trust’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund has awarded $1.6 million in grants to keep these historic spaces from disappearing from the American landscape.
“These 27 sites represent examples of Black resilience, activism and excellence. And as a collection, they begin to elevate the historic landscapes and buildings that tell an underrecognized and unappreciated story about the United States,” says Brent Leggs, executive director of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund.
Over the past two years, 65 historic African American sites received more than $4.3 million to help preserve and restore places that exemplify Black life and cultural heritage.
This year’s sites include Africatown in Mobile, Alabama, which was founded by descendants of the Clotilda, the last slave ship to come to the United States in 1860; the Tenth Street Historic District in Dallas, Texas, one of the few remaining Freedmen’s Towns, which were established by newly freed African Americans after the Civil War; and the “While We Are Still Here” project in New York’s Harlem, the most famous African American neighborhood that is quickly becoming gentrified.
The list also includes places that celebrate the contributions of legendary African Americans such as blues performer Muddy Waters; actor, activist and humanitarian Paul Robeson; and inventor Lewis Latimer, who improved electric lighting and drafted the patent for the telephone.
“Black experiences are often stereotypically defined through the lens of slavery,” Leggs says. “But part of our work is to help expand the American story... that we are not telling it just from the places of bondage and of terrorism and extreme violence. But it is about highlighting the resiliency and the protests and the ability to weather 250-plus years of structural racism. … I hope the nation begins to celebrate African Americans, because we have had the undue burden of shifting national consciousness and trying to hold center the moral compass of this nation.”
The recent Black Lives Matter protests have helped shine a light on the need to restore historic Black spaces. Leggs says the Action Fund has received more online donations, and he is hopeful that current talks with corporations and others will result in large gifts to help extend the Action Fund’s reach and impact.
“To be able to preserve these kinds of places help our nation learn more about the complexity and breadth of its own history,” Leggs says. “There's power in truth, and preservation begins to reveal more of the truth.”