In “Rescue Work: The fight to preserve African-American History,” in the February 3rd issue of The New Yorker, Casey Cep discusses the historical neglect of preserving sites of Black history in the United States and shares what Brent Leggs, director of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and communities around the country are doing to preserve and reactivate these sites.
Only 2% of the 95,000+ entries on the National Register of Historic Places focus on the experiences of Black Americans. There are a number of reasons for this, both social and structural. It’s already known that the stories and histories of Black people in the United States have not been valued as “preservation worthy” by those who write history nor by the people who established the criteria for the type of places and structures the National Trust should protect. In the article, Cep is sure to point out that Black communities have and continue to step in to preserve important sites and spaces when the system has ignored them. Among the highlighted are the efforts made by the National Association of Colored Women who saved Cedar Hill, former residence of Fredrick Douglass in 1917 and the 1960s campaign to preserve Weeksville led by Joan Maynard. Communities today still work to advocate for preservation of local sites, but now there is some additional help through the Action Fund, the “largest-ever campaign to preserve African-American Historic sites.” Brent Leggs is using this funding to not only preserve, but reimagine what preservation looks like.
Communities of color are thinking of ways to preserve and sustain historic sites beyond turning them into museums. An example provided in the article is Madam C. J. Walker’s Villa Lewaro in Irvington, New York, a 34-room mansion commissioned by Walker who was the first American woman to become a self-made millionaire. Instead of just jumping to make Villa Lewaro into a historic house museum, a team that included artists, activists, and business people came together and considered options for the site’s future. It was eventually agreed that Richelieu Dennis, owner of Essence magazine, would buy the building with the “plans to make it a home of a hundred-million-dollar think tank supporting black female entrepreneurs.”
Marabou finds this article encouraging not only because it shows that national efforts are being made to protect and preserve narratives from Black communities past and present, but also because Brent Leggs and others are imagining beyond what has been done already and are not constrained by the methods, models, and mindsets of historic sites that already exist.
Note: The article includes an audio option to listen in addition to reading.