Telling a Fuller American Story through Historic Preservation

The childhood home of musician and civil rights activist Nina Simone in Tryon, North Carolina—named a National Treasure by the National Trust in 2018. Photo by Nancy Pierce.

History is all around us, depending on where you look. From understated homes on quiet roads to grand monuments surrounded by city traffic, the story of America can be found at cultural sites in every city and every town across the nation.

But whose stories are being told—and whose are left out?

Today, an overwhelming majority of public monuments nationwide preserve and display only a small part of the past. Fewer than eight percent of 93,000 sites across the country on the National Register of Historic Places represent the stories of women and Americans of color.

A national conversation about the role of monuments in public sites and how the built environment shapes our perception and understanding of US cultural heritage was sparked in August 2017 when protests around the removal of a statue of Confederate commander Robert E. Lee from a local park in Charlottesville, VA, ended in violence.  

In the wake of the Charlottesville crisis, the National Trust for Historic Preservation— a DC-based nonprofit organization that protects and preserves historically important places—concluded that historical sites ought to represent the American experience more equitably, and heighten the visibility of the culture and history of African Americans.

villa-style mansion with a poolVilla Lewaro—the estate of entrepreneur, philanthropist, activist, and America's first female self-made millionaire, Madam C. J. Walker—in Irvington, New York. The site was named a National Treasure in 2014. Photo: Historic New England/David Bohl.

“This moment [in Charlottesville] is where culture, heritage, and public spaces collided in a violent way, and the National Trust wanted to provide national leadership that was absent in that moment,” explains Brent Leggs, an assistant clinical professor of historic preservation at the University of Maryland’s School of Architecture, Planning & Preservation, who was at the time a senior field officer for several National Trust field projects.

“We wanted to shed light on the full history of our nation, and to provide the true historical context that's needed for understanding why these issues happen in the first place.”

And so in November 2017, the Trust created the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, a campaign that aims to preserve 150 sites that embody African American history and culture, and named Leggs as the Action Fund’s director.  The fund—so far the largest private preservation campaign on behalf of African American history—awarded 16 grants in 2018, its first year, for sites including the home of musicians John and Alice Coltrane in Dix Hills, New York; playwright August Wilson’s home in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and Bethel Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, the headquarters of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights.

Leggs and his team view the preservation projects of the Action Fund as a critical form of activism, storytelling, and social justice.

“We are advancing a vision of equitable interpretation by celebrating and restoring sites of activism, achievement, and community,” says Leggs.  “And, in essence, we seek to reconstruct our national identity through the preservation of stories and places.”

Leggs says there has been overwhelming interest in the mission of the Action Fund, which in the past 14 months has received more than a thousand proposals for preservation projects. The fund now collaborates with organizations such as the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, the National Organization of Minority Architects, and others in order to make the final grant selections.

Next comes the hard work of conservation, a process that differs depending on the needs of each site.  But the common threads, say conservators, are collaboration and community involvement, with an eye toward balancing the needs of local economic development and careful stewardship of African American history and culture into the future.

Coltrane_258_crJoshuaScott_HERO.jpgHome of musicians Alice and John Coltrane in Dix Hills, New York—named a National Treasure by the National Trust in 2018. Photo courtesy of National Trust for Historic Preservation/Joshua Scott.

Take the John and Alice Coltrane Home in Dix Hills on New York’s Long Island, where jazz saxophonist John Coltrane composed his legendary 1964 album A Love Supreme and where Alice (McLeod) Coltrane, his wife—a jazz pianist and artistic master in her own right—recorded her first album Monastic Trio, among many others.  In 1973, six years after her husband’s death, McLeod sold the home, which was eventually abandoned.  After it narrowly escaped demolition, in 2005 a team of local citizens with support from music lovers worldwide persuaded the Town of Huntington, New York, to purchase the property.  Today, the Friends of the Coltrane Home in Dix Hills own the house itself, while the Town of Huntington owns and maintains the land.  The National Trust included the John and Alice Coltrane Home on its 11 Most Endangered Historic Places List, and in October 2018 designated the site a “National Treasure.”

“It has become a magnet for people who love music, for a diversity of people to come together and work arm in arm to help clean up the home, to scrub the floors, to rake the grass, to make the home presentable, to hang images,” says Ron Stein, president of Friends of the Coltrane Home.

In addition to repairing the home’s foundation and brick façade to prepare it for further interpretation as a museum and learning center and opening to visitors, Stein says the Coltrane Home project will expand a music education pilot program in the area’s economically challenged school districts, and will hold its fifth annual Coltrane Day Music Festival, which attracts musicians from a wide range of genres and cultures.

NYTIMES_20AUGUSTWILSON6-jumbo.jpgChildhood home of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The site was a 2018 Action Fund grant recipient. Photo: The New York Times/Tony Cenicola.

The August Wilson House, where the renowned playwright August Wilson grew up with his mother and siblings in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, will not only be preserved as a physical testament to his life there, but also focus on supporting present-day artists of color.  Wilson’s works included the Pulitzer Prize-winning Fences and The Piano Lesson, which earned both a Pulitzer and a Tony nomination.  They are part of The American Century Cycle, a series of ten plays depicting aspects of the 20th-century African American experience, nine of which are set in Hill District.

“What I think people appreciate the most about his work is his ability to highlight the experiences of the common man and woman,” says Paul A. Ellis, Jr., Wilson’s nephew and founding executive director and general counsel of the August Wilson House.  “That's very important to people because in the African American community it's often hard to get your voice recognized.”

Ellis says that Wilson would not have wanted his home to be a museum in the traditional sense.  “He spent the majority of his career opening up doors for others,” he adds.  “He wanted [his home] to be useful.  To make sure that no matter what programming was going on, that the effect of it was to open doors for others.  Especially those who typically don't have a voice.”

To support Wilson’s vision, the Action Fund grant will not only go toward interpretive planning for the home, but also toward programming to be held on site, including writing and playwriting courses, a studio space for artists, and fellowships for writers and artists of color, including the three-year-long Duquesne University/August Wilson House Fellowship.  The program’s inaugural fellow is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Natasha Trethewey, who was also the 19th US Poet Laureate.

In addition to illustrating the rich breadth of African American culture and history, the Action Fund grants memorialize places that can educate visitors about the most troubling aspects of US history, so that we may better understand where we are today.

LOC_571925cu_BethelBaptistChurch.jpgBethel Baptist Church, which served as headquarters from 1956 to 1961 for the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, in Birmingham, Alabama. The site was a 2018 Action Fund grant recipient. Photo: Library of Congress.

Bethel Baptist Church, built in 1926 in the Collegeville community of Birmingham, Alabama, is one such place. In the late 1950s, Reverend Fred L. Shuttlesworth arrived from Selma, Alabama to helm the congregation, where he was instrumental in inspiring African Americans to oppose the segregation of the Jim Crow South through direct action, explains Martha Bouyer, executive director of the Historic Bethel Baptist Church Association.

“Here in Birmingham, Reverend Shuttlesworth not only confronted bus segregation, but he challenged segregation in all areas including schools,” she says. In 1957, Rev. Shuttlesworth was severally beaten and his wife stabbed when he tried to enroll two of his daughters at Phillips High School, making his leadership for social justice all the more poignant. “He challenged segregation in all forms including using a restroom in a downtown department store, drinking water from a fountain labeled whites only, buying food at a restaurant and even trying on clothes before you purchased them.”  

Reverend Shuttlesworth was also president of the Alabama chapter of the NAACP, but the state forced the group to shut down in 1956, declaring it a foreign corporation, so Shuttlesworth formed the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR) in response. Rev. Shuttlesworth and the ACMHR developed a form of protest known as ‘direct action’ as a means to challenge unjust laws and in so doing, inspired people to challenge the laws non-violently. He went on to support the Freedom Riders, spoke at the 1963 March on Washington, and helped organize the Selma to Montgomery March for voting rights in 1965. 

Bethel and the Bethel Parsonage was bombed a total of three times with no loss of life.  The bombings did not dissuade Rev. Shuttlesworth but rather inspired him to  “ . . . march on until victory was won.”  Today, the Action Fund grant is helping to preserve the Bethel Baptist Church and Parsonage, as well as create historic structures reports, which will assess the buildings in support of preservation efforts. Bouyer, who frequently leads church tours, says she sees first-hand how meaningful these historic sites are in educating people about US history. “They teach us about our past, they stand as testaments to what happened, and how courageous men, women, boys, and girls got together and changed a city, state, nation, and inspired similar movements around the world,” she explains. Likening the church to “a sentinel or a guard,” she says that Bethel is a “constant reminder that one person, or a few people, do make a difference. These landmarks, buildings, places, they belong to the history of the United States. They make sure that we don't forget where we came from and what people endured to get us where we are today, and yet, they are reminders of how far we still have to go.”

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Indeed, with an eye toward the future of historic preservation, the Action Fund has been able to secure the largest gift ever received by Hands-On Preservation Experience (HOPE Crew), a program supported by the Fund II Foundation that links young people and veterans to preservation projects in communities nationwide—including the John and Alice Coltrane Home, the August Wilson House, and the Bethel Baptist Church.  And just last year, HOPE Crew piloted a summer immersion project that engaged Morgan State University architecture students in preservation planning, theory, and practice at major sites including the Grand Teton National Park, Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary, and The Peale Center in Baltimore, Maryland.  This year, Tuskegee University will join the program.

“Part of what we envision is creating a more equitable and diverse field of practice,” says Brent Leggs.  “Many of [the students] are now interested in changing their career paths to get grad degrees in historic preservation and be part of this movement.”