The stories and legacies of Black Americans can be found throughout the US, each site and landmark helping illustrate a more complete picture of the nation we live in.
History lives on in the communities where formerly enslaved people settled after the end of the Civil War, and the safe havens where Black Americans sought refuge from the dangers of Jim Crow. Legacies endure in the colleges and universities that birthed generations of Black scholars and leaders, and in the homes of prominent musicians and poets.
Dozens of these places will now be preserved for years to come, thanks to a total of $3 million in grants from the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund.
The African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, an initiative of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, was launched in 2017 after White supremacists descended on Charlottesville, Virginia, with the purported goal of saving a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. It was established “for the purpose of reconstructing a true national identity that reflects America’s diversity,” said the action fund’s executive director Brent Leggs.
“What it means to preserve a landmark in this instance is really about telling overlooked stories embodied in those places — ones of African American resilience, activism and achievement — that are fundamental to the nation itself,” he said.
This latest grant is being divided among a total of 40 projects that span 17 states, Puerto Rico and Washington, DC. It’s the largest single disbursement in the action fund’s history.
Here are some of the places that will be preserved — and the stories behind them.
The place of Emmett Till’s funeral
After 14-year-old Emmett Till was brutally killed by two White men in Mississippi, his body was shipped back home to his family in Chicago.
His mother, Mamie Till Mobley, insisted on an open casket at the funeral so that mourners could bear witness to his mutilated body.
“Let the people see what they did to my boy,” she said.
The 1955 funeral drew thousands of people who lined up to pay their respects. It was a turning point in the civil rights movement — and it took place at the Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ.
The church, founded in the early 1900s, is an official Chicago landmark where a congregation worships to this day. Last year, the National Trust for Historic Preservation listed it as one of the United States’ Most Endangered Historic Places due to severe structural problems.
A coalition working to preserve Roberts Temple plans to address the safety issues and eventually, restore the building to its 1955 appearance.
Green Book sites in the Carolinas
For African Americans in the mid-1900s, traveling was a life or death endeavor.
A guide known as the Green Book, however, helped Black people safely navigate a nation in which they were routinely subject to segregation, discrimination and physical violence.
“The Negro Motorist Green Book,” as it was formally called, listed hotels, motels, restaurants, gas stations and other establishments where African American patrons were welcome. Many of those sites also served as hubs for civil rights activism and organizing.
More than 300 Green Book sites can be found in North Carolina, and the North Carolina African American Heritage Commission has been working to document and map each of those locations through an online portal.
The commission will also work with its South Carolina counterpart to develop a national model for the project, according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
A cultural oasis for Black musicians
One site listed in the Green Book was the Hotel Metropolitan, opened in 1909 by a Black woman named Maggie Steed.
Located in Paducah, Kentucky, it was a place of rest and refuge for African Americans passing through the area — a shelter from the discrimination they would have faced elsewhere. The hotel was also a stop on the Chitlin’ Circuit, a network of venues throughout the South where Black musicians could perform during the era of Jim Crow.
Over the years, Hotel Metropolitan hosted jazz and blues legends such as Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong and B.B. King. Because it had become such a hub for creatives, the hotel built a juke joint known as the “Purple Room,” where musicians would unwind, have a drink and play for other patrons, according to a feature from Kentucky Educational Television.
Today, Hotel Metropolitan functions as a museum, and the grant will help restore the Purple Room to its former glory.
A dormitory for Black female students
African American women in Boston who weren’t allowed in the residence halls of their colleges and universities in the mid-1900s instead stayed at the headquarters of the League of Women for Community Service — a social services organization led by Black women in the city.
One of those women was Coretta Scott, who lived in the building when she was a student at the New England Conservatory of Music. It was during this time that she started dating her future husband Martin Luther King Jr., according to the League’s website.
The storied brownstone in Boston’s South End is currently in a process of rehabilitation, and the League hopes to make the building a center of affordable housing for students once again. The new funds will go toward restoring the entry portico.
The site where the first enslaved Africans arrived
In 1619, a ship carrying more than 20 enslaved Africans arrived in Port Comfort on the shores of Virginia. Its arrival marked the beginning of slavery in British North America, forever altering the course of what would become the United States.
That site is now part of Fort Monroe, also where abolitionist Harriet Tubman briefly treated wounded and sick African American soldiers. In 2019, thousands of people gathered there to commemorate the 400th anniversary of American slavery.
The Fort Monroe Foundation and other groups are working to preserve and contextualize the site’s history, and a sculpture has been commissioned to honor the enslaved individuals who were brought there.
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