By Brent Leggs, Special to the AFRO
“As a youngster visiting my grandmother, spending time within the house and sitting with her on the porch, I witnessed Black life unfolding as a litany of rituals and social practices.” So wrote Rutgers University historian and longtime preservationist Clement Price in the spring of 2014, only a few months before his death.
Price’s grandmother was not famous, and her house at 1010 Oak St in Columbia, South Carolina was just an ordinary 1920s bungalow. And yet, Price eloquently argued in a fascinating essay called “The Path to Big Mama’s House: Historic Preservation, Memory, and African-American History,” it carried within its walls the stories and experiences of Jim Crow and the Civil Rights movement. “Places and spaces, like Big Mama’s house, their humbleness notwithstanding, now loom large in what matters in the way historians are deciphering what Blacks did as free people.”
As usual, Clem Price was right, and the American preservation movement has now caught up with his insight. For decades, traditional preservation too often neglected and undervalued modest places, even those important to Black history, in part because they tend to be vernacular structures that don’t personify beautiful architecture. But today, preservation better reflects the true diversity of America, and is more attuned to the rich history that can be embodied in simple, unadorned places. At the National Trust for Historic Preservation, we are now working hard to tell the full American story, and save many more historic homes across the country.
That’s why as part of our recent Annual List of 11-Most Endangered Places in America, we included several houses that help relate the history of African American life and culture. For example, the wood-framed Mary and Eliza Freeman houses in Bridgeport, Connecticut are widely considered the oldest surviving houses built by African Americans in that state, and help to tell the unique story of female entrepreneurs and the free Black community in the North before the Civil War. And in Mound Bay, Mississippi, one of the earliest all-Black municipalities in the United States, the Isaiah T. Montgomery House symbolizes the extraordinary achievement of the town’s founder, and stands as a testament to African-American resilience and economic self-sufficiency in the early 20th century South. Both sites made our 11-most list, which has helped save hundreds of historic places over the last thirty years.
It’s also why, as part of Black Music Month last month, we were proud to announce the birthplace of Nina Simone in Tryon, North Carolina as our newest National Treasure. This is our signature portfolio of threatened historic places of national significance, and Simone’s early home definitely fits the bill. Through songs like “Mississippi Goddam” and “Backlash Blues,” Simone was the soundtrack of Civil Rights, galvanizing the movement and drawing her into a powerful circle of Black leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., Lorraine Hansberry, James Baldwin, and Langston Hughes. The Simone house is just a small home in a small town – you would never know it was significant otherwise. But it was there Simone discovered her gift for the piano, and where her lifelong journey of making music and challenging Jim Crow.
There are special historic places like the Freeman, Montgomery, and Simone houses in communities all over America. But too often these places are not being given the respect they deserve, and thus the profound imprint of Black history is being rendered invisible. We are working to change that. When we announced our multi-million dollar African-American Cultural Heritage Action Fund last November, we received 830 grant proposals totaling nearly $91 million in funding requests in 42 states, reflecting both the great need and great desire to see these stories told and places protected. This month, we will announce the first wave of grants for preservationists working to save important and overlooked Black places across the country.
Few of us were born in the big mansions that preservation once focused on. But that doesn’t mean our stories shouldn’t be told. Places like “Big Mama’s House,” the late Clem Price wrote, “connect very ordinary Americans with their personal histories and in turn, these histories connect with the larger narrative of making a more perfect and yet complicated union.” We cannot form that union, or be the nation we strive to be, until our full history is preserved, and every American can see themselves and their heritage in the historic places all around us.
Brent Leggs is the Director of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and an Assistant Clinical Professor at the Graduate Program in Historic Preservation of the University of Maryland.