Guest Column: Historic Preservation Puts Black History On The Map

Centuries ago, just beyond the French Quarter of New Orleans, enslaved Black Americans gathered to dance, trade goods and play the lilting notes that would eventually become jazz.

The buildings where they lived and worked composed the Faubourg Treme, America’s oldest African American neighborhood. A pluralistic haven with Africans, Haitians and Frenchmen living side by side, it’s where U.S. Supreme Court plaintiff Homer Plessy listened to sermons at St. Augustine, America’s first Black Catholic parish, while bars of blues drifted across what is now Louis Armstrong Park.

But by the start of the 21st century, the neighborhood was crumbling. Entire blocks had been torn down. Despite tireless community organizing, significant cultural spaces had to close their doors.

Then, an investment in Treme’s past salvaged its future. The neighborhood and many of its buildings were declared historic sites, which paved the way for grants that restored homes owned by Black families and revived other iconic structures in the city like Holy Aid and Comfort Spiritual Church, housed in the former Perseverance Hall in the 7th Ward. 

This type of investment not only funded Black homeownership in the face of displacement but also retained Treme’s historic character — and modern-day quality of life.

That dynamic relationship between Black history and Black futures informs our work as the executive director of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, the largest fund for preserving Black historic sites in the United States, and the president of one if its funders, a foundation committed to advancing racial justice through historical reckoning.

As we celebrate Black history this month and every month, we must protect the places that hold our heritage — not only to preserve our rich and complex past, but to lift up the cultures and communities that are deeply rooted in these spaces today.

This effort is a crucial response to a long history of exclusion and erasure of Black Americans from the places they called home, with policies and practices that try and send the message that we do not belong.

Our historic sites tell a different story: We have been here all along, in the homes of our heroes and on the mural-covered walls of our cities, through our houses of worship and across HBCUs that continue to teach our legacy. Which is why the Action Fund has helped to rescue the homes of activists like Mamie Till-Mobley and artists like Muddy Waters.

Telling our own stories — through our own sites — has never been more important. The power of place makes our history real and concrete, builds a bridge between past and present and preserves the wisdom and struggle of generations.

To build our power, the Action Fund has in its first five years raised more than $80 million and supported more than 200 projects to safeguard sites of Black cultural heritage. But we still have miles to go.

Black cultural assets are undervalued and underfunded. Today, just 1% of the nation’s preservationists are African American. These groups have submitted 4,928 funding proposals to the Action Fund, requesting $575 million.

Without recognition of their cultural significance — and without experts with the lived experienced to cultivate and guide their preservation — crucial historic spaces will disintegrate. In their absence, we risk losing centuries of history that illuminate the ways Black Americans have shaped the nation.

To safeguard our past, we must protect its place in our present by directing resources to the communities who can best impart their own histories.

We must steward America’s diverse heritage instead of closing historic sites to the public. Historians and preservationists of Black history often do just the opposite, drawing communities into the spaces that shape their heritage.

That’s why organizations like the Action Fund support not only restoration and repair, but entirely new projects: programming and education, community engagement workshops and funds for Black-owned business. In 2022, the Action Fund helped build a registry of Black-owned businesses throughout historic Chicago neighborhoods — a database of entrepreneurs and leaders shaping tomorrow’s historic record.

This approach to preservation calls all of us who are engaged in racial and social justice to fight for representation of people and place. From the Tills to those in Treme, Black Americans have shaped our culture with their contributions and bettered our country with their courage. Reclaiming Black history’s place in our national narrative starts with putting it, literally, back on the map.

Darren Walker is president of the Ford Foundation. Brent Leggs is executive director of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund and senior vice president of the National Trust.

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