The Quiet Power of Preservation
Trymaine Lee: This week our country turned 245 years old. America, this young, arrogant nation, is a place where history has shaped our national identity. The monuments that we honor, the stories that we tell, and the spaces we return to, are ways that we look to the past to better understand ourselves, because the memories that are held in their walls and in their soil and in their spirits are reflections of not just who we were, but who we are.
In so many ways, we've long suffered a crisis of identity. And we're seeing now how the politics of our memories have twisted and shaped us in ways that have largely centered whiteness and white Americanness. Over the past year in particular, there's been a reckoning with that version of the American story.
The movement to tear down monuments to the Confederacy and white supremacy has grown. Statues have come crumbling down, and whole towns have been stripped of their racist names. And we're seeing how, through the course of American history, the Black American experience has been cast as an aside, deemed by the gatekeepers as lacking importance to who we are, as if it's something separate from the American experience.
Of the nearly 95,000 entries on the National Register of Historic Places, just 2% focus on Black Americans. But the effort to identify, restore, and preserve African American historic sites has recently been injected with new interest and a boatload of funding. At the forefront is the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and their bold push to restore Black history into American history, right where it belongs.
Brent Leggs: Our work is to center Blackness at the core of our democracy for the purpose of presenting and amplifying the full contributions of Black America to our nation.
Lee: I'm Trymaine Lee, and this is Into America. Today we dive into the largest national preservation campaign ever undertaken in support of African American historic sites, and what's at stake if we turn our backs on our Black past.
Leggs: I hope that when Americans see a historic marker they become curious, that they want to discover meaning behind a historic place.
Lee: Brent Leggs is a steward of cultural history. First of all, that's a great name. That's, like, a superhero by day, (LAUGHTER) preservationist at night.
Leggs: I'm loving it, yeah.
Lee: You know what I mean? He's the executive director of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, a division of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The Action Fund was launched in 2017 with the goal of saving and restoring the ordinary and extraordinary places that tell us who we are as Americans and where we've been as Black people.
So far they've awarded grants to 65 historic locations and invested more than $4.3 million to help preserve places like Nina Simone's childhood home in North Carolina, Madam C.J. Walker's Villa Lewaro in New York, and Vernon AME Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Earlier this summer they received a $20 million donation from MacKenzie Scott, which means Brent and his colleagues now have even more support to pursue what he describes as the quiet power of preservation.
Leggs: So you can imagine learning about a $20 million investment that was an affirmation that our work to preserve Black culture matters. It's the largest, single, non-capital gift in the history of the National Trust.
Leggs: My hope is that this isn't a trend, that more Americans of financial influence will support organizations that are deeply committed to the economic and social advancement and upliftment of Black communities. I don't know that a lot of Americans understand the power of preserving the physical evidence of our past, and how that activity reduces the gap between space and time.
It's a way that we connect to our ancestors, but most importantly, it's a way that we understand who we are in the present moment. For me that's the quiet power. The beauty that I see in African American historic places is that's where the souls of Black folks live. That's where the culture and the heritage and the examples and wisdom are embodied. And for me, that's that untapped potential. And it makes preservation almost transcendent in nature.
Lee: Wow, and how does that work actually look? Like, what do you actually do? 'Cause it sounds big and important, and, you know, trying to get our arms around the idea. But in practice, how does it work?
Leggs: So preservation is actually complicated. And I'm gonna give just a little background on my journey and how I came to preservation. So I graduated with an MBA, and realized that corporate America didn't fit my personality. And so I began the process of soul searching for something that really fit my spirit and my creativity.
And I thought I discovered it when I learned that there was a furniture-making program in the School of Architecture at the University of Kentucky. And so I went inside and I had this 15 minute, random conversation with the dean of the Graduate Preservation Program, Dr. Dennis Domer.
He said I'd be the first African American to go into the program, first person with an MBA. So I took this kind of random chance, and thankfully I was invited to conduct this statewide inventory of historic Rosenwald Schools in my home state of Kentucky.
Lee: For folks that don't know, most of us don't know, what are they and what's the importance?
Leggs: So Booker T. Washington, in 1912, he partnered with Julius Rosenwald, who at the time was the second president of Sears and Roebuck. Together they would help to fund over 5,000 school buildings in 15 Southern states. So it really is a revolution in Black education.
They were the most architecturally designed school buildings and plans for Black children in the segregated South. The power of this is that most African American families can connect some part of their heritage to Rosenwald Schools. At one point, one third of all Black children in the South were being educated inside of a Rosenwald School.
These buildings stood at the center of community. They generally were constructed next to a Black church. So imagine, you know, you have the Black church, you have the cemetery, you have the school. It literally were the building blocks for freedom.
And I remember in that process meeting all of these grassroots preservationists, dedicated, but they had limited resources. They had limited technical knowledge. And they literally were using their own money and resources to try to save America's diverse cultural heritage.
So at that moment I knew that there were opportunities to define the business of preservation, to help grassroots professionalize practice, and to secure the resources to sustain the work. 'Cause that's the work. It is to protect and moralize the Black experience. And it's hard work.
Lee: Those Rosenwald schools that Brent described, the discovery of which helped spark his own interest in preservation of Black spaces, were pivotal in Black education in the South. They were small buildings set in rural areas, sometimes with just a single teacher. Close to 5,000 Rosenwald schools were built between 1917 and 1932. And as Brent mentioned, a significant number of Black families from the South can trace a family member who attended one. Does that include your family?
Leggs: It does, yeah. I discovered that my mom and dad both attended Rosenwald Schools in central Kentucky. And that's when I began to understand the quiet power of preservation, that the preservation of a building, it reduces the gap between space and time.
And so when I was standing at a school building and I walked inside it, and Trymaine, I mean, literally this building was being held up by a tree. And so I took this, you know, chance to walk inside and interact with this history. And I had this multi-sensory, immersive experience.
You know, I could hear the creaking floorboards. It was a beautiful, sunny day, so the sunlight was, like, shining through broken windowpanes. And I could literally smell the decay. And that's when I began to also understand that preservation was spiritual, that that connection, that I could touch literally through that school, I could touch Booker T. Washington's mind and vision for uplifting Black America.
And I was intentional about going to the site where my dad's school once stood. And I stood there on that vacant land, whispering, you know, to the wind and to the ancestors my hope that our existing cultural heritage will be preserved in perpetuity. So the work of preservation, for me, is not only professional, it's also personal.
Lee: When you think about being able to taste and smell the history in those spaces, but then the fact that they're being held up oftentimes by a tree, right? So fragile and delicate, right? What do we lose when we lose these buildings? Because every single day I'm sure all across America we are losing those physical manifestations of where we've been and who we are.
Leggs: Yeah. So we lose culture, we lose identity, we lose memory. You know, I often wonder where do memories go when they're lost?
Lee: I wonder if you could take us back to your, like, first, you know, big project that was like, "Here you are, I'm in the game, I got a victory." What was that first project?
Leggs: So the first project was working to protect Joe Frazier's gym in Philadelphia.
Lee: Philly. Philly. (LAUGH)
Leggs: Yeah. And Joe Frazier owned this gym for four decades, lost it in foreclosure the year that he passed away in 2011. And it was acquired by a LLC. They put a discount furniture store inside of that space.
Lee: Which already sounds crazy. Joe Frazier's gym.
Leggs: It's disrespectful, right? Yeah.
Lee: It's very disrespectful.
Leggs: And what was also disrespectful is they started to put up scaffolding to remove his name, which is etched in the granite on the front façade. It says "Joe Frazier's Gym" and they were about to remove that. So we saw this impending threat and needed to step in.
So we were able to collaborate with the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia. We designated the gym as a Philadelphia landmark, which protects it from demolition and adverse alterations. We listed it in the National Register of Historic Practices. We partnered with the Urban Land Institute, and some boxing folks that wanted to partner to redevelop the gym. And today it stands protected. And his name will forever be on the building.
Lee: That's a big deal with what Joe Frazier means to Philly, but also the rich history of boxing and what it's done for the community. To lose that space would be, you know, I don't have the good words for it. Just ridiculous. But I wanna ask you this, that's the thing that's a great example of where one person might see this very important space that needs to exist in perpetuity, right?
Another person sees a building to sell some used sectional, right, or some old furniture. Who decides, you know, and who has historically and traditionally decided what deserved preservation and the respect that comes with it? You know, and who are the gatekeepers?
Leggs: So when I look at the way our nation has preserved historic places, it has mirrored social values. And what I mean by that is we have preserved places associated to a privileged few, to white men, you know, former presidents, white enslavers, white business industrialists.
And there are more than 100,000 places in our national inventory, only 2% directly reflects the Black experience. Less than 10% reflect social and ethnic histories. So it's clear that white America, and in particular white men, have been the ones defining and having the authority to define the American story.
That's why it is so important, and I'm so proud to be first generation, academically trained, Black professional in this space, driving social innovation, helping to tell a fuller American story. One of the spaces that's dear to my heart is the A.G. Gaston Motel that's in Birmingham, Alabama.
And our work was to create the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument, where the motel is the epicenter of that national monument. Imagine thinking about the Howard Johnson Motels of the 1950s. Mid-century modern, linear in design. It's a two story motel that was constructed in 1954.
And you would drive in between two buildings into an interior courtyard, park the car. They also had a coffee shop and a restaurant. It was the epicenter of Black Birmingham's community. And in the spring of 1963, that's when the American Civil Rights Movement would descend on this space, occupy it for months.
But when I walked inside the gate, and I stood where Dr. King and Reverend Shuttlesworth and Reverend Abernathy and the foot soldiers of the Birmingham campaign of 1963, that was power for me. When I started to just close my eyes and think about how Black men, women, and children armed only with the truth and their spiritual battle against immorality tested and affirmed the timeless idea that purposeful collective action can change our nation and the world. And again, the innovation that we're seeing, the commitment to placing diversity at the core of the missions of preservation organizations, this work is being led by and inspired by Black preservationists.
Lee: After the break, Brent and I talk about more sites he's working to save and why the work of preserving Black history is a key racial justice issue.
Lee: We're back with Brent Leggs with the National Trust for Historic Preservation. He's worked on so many projects, the A.G. Gaston Motel, Joe Frazier's Gym. I really wanted to hear more about some of his favorites.
Leggs: I'm excited about the John and Alice Coltrane Home project that's in Dix Hills, New York. And inside of this ranch-style house in this all-residential, suburban community that they would integrate in the mid-20th century, it's got this Black iron gate fence in the front, and a long driveway.
And the house is situated pretty much to the back of three acres. So driving in this all-residential neighborhood of these McMansions, and then all of a sudden you see the Coltrane property, and driving down that long driveway, I just could feel, like, the hair on my arms stand up because I was getting closer and closer and closer to the place where A Love Supreme was created.
You know, a place where Alice recorded her first five albums, a place where Ravi Coltrane and Michelle Coltrane played in the yard, how this was world history and I was about to interact with it, walk on that landscape, in that lawn, to touch that brick façade, to go inside and to walk in the second floor bedroom where he composed A Love Supreme.
That, for me, was a moment that I'll never forget. That house represents where they raised their family and they shared Black love. It represents a creative space where they used their art and talent to express their creativity. And it's exciting to work with Ravi Coltrane and Michelle Coltrane, the children. And the vision is to not only use that place to tell their story, but to inspire the next generation of creators.
Lee: So when you arrive at that house today or yesterday or last week or last month, what state is it in? What was it being used for if not a mini museum?
Leggs: It's vacant. The house has been vacant for the last 20 years. And it was threatened with demolition back in 2004. A guy, a resident in Dix Hills, a gentleman named Steve Fulgoni, he's a major fan of John Coltrane. He activated the community.
They would protect it from demolition by designating it as a Huntington local landmark. And then we've been, you know, building their capacity, their organizational capacity over decades. We listed the site on America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list in 2009. We've invested significant money. And I'm hopeful that the project will be complete in the next couple years and open to the public.
Lee: How do you balance at once the idea of centering a narrative of the Black experience in America, which has been denied, or buried, or neglected for so long, with contextualizing the violence baked into some of the other monuments that stand today, like all the Confederate stuff, like the plantations, right, the slave labor camps. How do you balance those things and put the proper context and framing around these two things existing simultaneously?
Leggs: That's the art and the challenge of preservation. I'm personally motivated to balance public memory, even if it's during the period of slavery. So when I am helping to interpret a slavery story, I'm looking for stories of Black resistance, of Black love, stories that have been overlooked and lesser known.
So when I think of 1619 and Fort Monroe, you know, I think about, you know, fast track more than, you know, a couple of hundred years later to 1861, and I think of Townsend and Mallory and Baker, three enslaved Black men who, through their own agency, self-emancipated.
And in that process would be considered contraband of war, inspire 500,000 freedom seekers to follow in their footsteps. And this moment of self-determination is this unknown story that was just a catalyst for emancipation. That's the kind of story that I'm looking to uplift so that the Black experience, that we are positioned not just as spectators in history, that we are shown as actors in history and that we can restore, as a form of repair and reconciliation, revive that part of our cultural legacy.
Lee: Brent, and it's one thing to engage with things that happened long ago, right, decades ago, generations ago, a century or two ago. But as they say, history is being made right now. How do you all as preservationists engage with the now in terms of saving spaces and places for generations to come because you recognize now that they're significant? How does that even work? Or does it need to be history (LAUGH) in order to preserve it?
Leggs: In preservation we're also, mostly we are reactive and responding to threats in the 11th hour. And so we are looking to be proactive in helping to preserve and document living history. Last year we gave a grant to the city of Minneapolis so that the community could develop strategies for protecting and memorializing the George Floyd memorials there.
There are places that I want to ensure that this living history, the history of the recent past, like Michelle Obama's childhood home in Chicago, or even Oprah Winfrey's home in California. Because, unfortunately, I remember the day that I was in Chicago and construction crews were demolishing the Oprah Winfrey studios.
Leggs: For McDonald's headquarters. (LAUGH) And it's unfortunate--
Lee: I don't mean to laugh but for McDonald's?
Leggs: For a McDonald's headquarters. And what's unfortunate is we could've been proactive in using an easement to protect at least the studio. So I wanna ensure that these sites of recent history and memory, that there are preservation strategies in place to ensure that, you know, this history lives on.
Lee: Wow. You know, I am someone who believes deeply that places and items carry energy and the spirit of everyone who's touched it. There are certain old books I get, and I can just smell it, and I can feel it, and I can taste the history there. And I wonder, you know, for someone such as yourself who feels that same kind of way, how often do you get to actually visit these spaces you're working on and spend time in these places? And how much of it is just paperwork and meetings and pushing and raising money? What's the balance here? Do you get a chance to, like, exist in those spaces?
Leggs: Yeah. So I do. I'm so fortunate to be able to tour places like Nina Simone's childhood home in Tryon, North Carolina, South Side Community Art Center in Chicago. My big dream is to finally have the space and time, because as you can imagine, leading a campaign of this size and a program of this size, I spend a lotta time fundraising, a lotta time amplifying the work in the media. Time is spent setting the strategic direction for the work. But I would love to find some time to, you know, take three months and just go visit 50 places and interact and capture--
Lee: Hey, bro, take me with you, man. (LAUGH) Take me with you. I'm down--
Leggs: Let's do it.
Lee: I'm down for a road trip--
Leggs: Yeah. (LAUGH) Yeah, that's the big dream.
Lee: Why do you think it matters so much to people, these space, these places? Why does it matter that we preserve and honor and respect and contextualize these places that have such historical resonance?
Leggs: I think the biggest purpose is that we want to ensure that the Black experience lives into immortality, that there is forever a permanent record about the Black experience in America. That's the power that we leave to this nation. That's the benefit that we leave to America, to ensure that we're building a true national identity that reflects America's true diversity.
Lee: That we matter and always have.
Lee: That was Brent Leggs of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. He's the executive director of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund. And I'd love to hear about your favorite landmarks, or the ones you're really eager to visit.
You can tweet me @TrymaineLee, that's @TrymaineLee, my full name, or write to us at IntoAmerica@nbcuni.com. That was IntoAmerica@nbc and the letters U-N-I.com. Into America is produced by Isabel Angell, Allison Bailey, Bryson Barnes, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, and Aisha Turner. Original music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. I'm Trymaine Lee. Have a great weekend, we'll see you next Thursday.