The Widespread Failure to Preserve African American History

01.31.20

Devised by Booker T. Washington and funded by the philanthropist Julius Rosenwald, almost 5,000 schools were built in 15 Southern states between 1912 and 1932. Rosenwald schools educated more than 600,000 black students during the segregation era. After segregated education was ruled unconstitutional, the schoolhouses that served rural whites were romanticized and preserved, while 90% of the Rosenwald schools were demolished or allowed to fall into disrepair. (Hannah Price for The New Yorker)

Only 2% of the 95,000 entries on the National Register of Historic Places—“the list of sites deemed worthy of preservation by the federal government”—focus on the experiences of African Americans, reporting in the latest issue of The New Yorker reveals. This widespread failure to preserve African American history is itself rooted in America’s history of racial injustice.

Historic preservation in the U.S. has been tainted by racial inequality since its beginnings. The federal government first invested in historic preservation to preserve Confederate battlefields, cemeteries, and burial sites after the Civil War, writer Casey Cep explains.

In 1966, Lyndon B. Johnson signed the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), establishing the National Register of Historic Places and providing federal funding for the National Trust. “[B]ecause many biases were written into the criteria that determine how sites are selected,” Ms. Cep writes, the law has largely failed to protect black historic sites.

For example, one criteria for preservation is architectural significance, which excluded buildings like slave cabins and tenement houses and left them to decay beyond saving. Without the protections afforded by historic designation, some historically black neighborhoods were actively destroyed:  deliberately burned in the post-Reconstruction era of racial terror or displaced by highway projects, gentrification, and urban renewal in more recent decades.

The denial of designations for black historic places has gone hand in hand with the absence of African Americans from the institutions that decide what history is preserved. The NHPA has generated an estimated two million jobs, but Ms. Cep reports that less than 6% of the National Park Service’s 20,000 employees are black, and African Americans comprise less than 4% of academic archeologists, 5% of licensed architects and engineers, and less than 1% of professional preservationists.

Nearly two million locations have been identified as worthy of preservation since NHPA was signed, and it has raised more than a $100 billion in private investments—benefits that have gone mostly to white Americans, Ms. Cep writes. Wealthy communities and property owners have benefited from economic development driven by parks, monuments, and historic registers, while designations are rarely granted in less affluent areas where they’re most needed to protect historic places.

Elizabeth Alexander, president of the Mellon Foundation, told The New Yorker that for a long time communities of color have had to “carry around knowledge and stories in our bodies,” because resources were not devoted to preserving the spaces that held those stories. Without government support, generations of African Americans have had to preserve historic sites on their own, in some cases raising money and fighting off developers over decades to secure the type of preservation that Colonial and Confederate sites often get in a few years.

Meanwhile, on the state level, tens of millions in taxpayer dollars has gone to Confederate statues, homes, parks, museums, libraries, and cemeteries over the past decade alone—creating an American landscape that is saturated with Confederate iconography. EJI has documented nearly 2,000 Confederate monuments across the U.S., many of which were installed to romanticize and glorify enslavement and oppose the civil rights movement. But there are still very few public spaces that acknowledge slavery, racial terror lynching, or the mass opposition to racial equality during the civil rights era.

Brent Leggs, director of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, told The New Yorker that recent debates around the preservation of Confederate monuments have reinforced his conviction that the places and structures we protect say less about what we valued in the past than what we venerate today.

“A lot of our work is to balance America’s collective memory,” Mr. Leggs said. Last year, the Trust funded 22 recipients, including the oldest extant black church in the country, the African Meeting House in Boston; the house in Auburn, New York, that Harriet Tubman bought from Senator William Seward in 1858 and lived in for more than 50 years; and the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, where nine members of the congregation were murdered by a white supremacist in 2015.

Efforts to preserve African American history and diversify the field of historic preservation continue to face obstacles. After decades of neglect, the needs greatly outweigh resources. In its first year alone, the Action Fund received more than 800 applications requesting nearly $91 million in grants. The federal government stopped allocating funds to the National Trust in 1997, leaving the Trust reliant on private individuals and foundations. It has raised $20 million so far.

Projects to preserve even the most popular sites—like the estate of black hair-care entrepreneur and America’s first self-made female millionaire, Madam C.J. Walker—can take decades. Preserving places that focus on our history of slavery, racial terrorism, and segregation is even more difficult, as demonstrated by the nearly two-decades-long fight to persuade Richmond to memorialize its deep economic dependence on slavery.

Not far from Monument Avenue, where white supremacists have rallied recently to protect four massive Confederate statues, lies Shockoe Bottom, the center of Richmond’s slave district where more than 300,000 men, women, and children were sold in the three decades before the Civil War, Ms. Cep reports. Between 1750 and 1816, most of the African Americans who died in Richmond were interred there in what was known as the Burial Ground for Negroes. Later, residents claimed that land for themselves and the city turned the rest of it into a jail and then a dog pound before running I-95 through its center.

In 2002, community groups like the Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality organized to reclaim the burial ground (which was then a parking lot) and memorialize Richmond’s connections to the slave trade. It took a decade to get the city to clear the pavement. Then, in 2013, the city proposed building a minor-league baseball stadium at Shockoe Bottom, which would have destroyed any remaining archeological evidence and desecrated the burial ground. The Trust declared Shockoe Bottom one of America’s most endangered historic places, and the city withdrew its plans in 2015.

The Defenders have proposed a memorial park centered on the burial ground, but the city says it can’t afford that. Ana Edwards, an artist and historian who founded the Scared Ground Project to preserve the site after learning that two of her ancestors were sold there, told The New Yorker she believes Shockoe Bottom should be a site of reflection and remembrance but also of resistance, offering an alternative to the Confederate history that Richmond has long revered. “I don’t know if this space can do all the work our society needs it to,” Ms. Edwards said. “But we need this place.”

Mr. Leggs agrees. “It should be a site of conscience,” he said. “A place where the truth is told, and visitors reflect, and where reconciliation can happen.”