Civil Rights And Architecture: the Fight to Save Buildings and the African American Stories They Tell

There are some breathtaking properties not far from New York City that you’ve surely heard of, or perhaps visited, like the John D. Rockefeller mansion in Mount Pleasant, NY and the John Jacob Astor estate further up the Hudson River in Rhinebeck.

The buildings spark conversation about the storied titans of industry, including their wealth and philanthropic contributions to America.

What I didn’t know is that Harriet Tubman’s house is also in upstate New York.

Of course, I had studied about the abolitionist in elementary school, learning that she orchestrated the Underground Railroad, and risked her life to deliver dozens of slaves to freedom in a series of secret trips to the north.

But this week, I learned of the Harriet Tubman National Historical Park in Auburn, NY, comprised of her house, the nearby Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged, and the Thompson A.M.E. Church where she worshipped.

Likewise, these buildings serve as catalysts to discuss Tubman’s courageous actions and her relentless pursuit of freedom.

We need more historic landmarks celebrating Black America.  It’s not an opinion.

Of the nearly 95,000 entries on the National Register of Historic Places, only 2% focus on the experience of Black Americans.

Unbelievable, right?

Startling and appalling, too.

The January issue of The New Yorker details how a group called the Action Fund is fighting this disparity.  The group has raised more than $25 million in the largest-ever campaign to preserve African-American historic sites.

More recently, Architectural Digest reported that the process of designating historic places needs immediate overhauling:

“If we want to educate future generations about Black history in America, we need to work to preserve Black historic sites now.”

The National Trust for Historic Preservation admits there’s a problem.

President Paul Edmondson told AD, “I think it’s undeniable that there was—like every institution within this country—structural racism, and it’s pervasive through our society.  We know that, and we can’t deny that it was clearly a part of our preservation movement in some ways.”

There is lots of work being done to correct the huge racial gap.  But improvements can’t be classified simply as reactionary; even before the murder of George Floyd sparked worldwide outrage, activists were working to save critical artifacts connected to slavery.

What I found so interesting is that the movement is not just about saving buildings, but hallowed ground as well.

The New Yorker shares details of a grassroots fight to restore an area called Shockoe Bottom, in Richmond, Virginia. Richmond used to be the second-largest slave market in the country.

Shockoe Bottom is a valley where more than 300,000 men, women, and children were sold in the 30 years before the Civil War. The article states that in 1800, 26 slaves were hanged for planning a revolt against their owners, clinging to the battle cry “Death or Liberty.”

These slaves, along with their stories, were buried beneath a parking lot until this century. Then, in 2002, protests began to reclaim Shockoe Bottom as a memorial to the slave trade.

The New Yorker reports:  “Activists demanded that the city ‘get your asphalt off our ancestors,’ and, although it took a decade, the pavement was eventually cleared. In 2013, the group helped launch another wave of protests after the city proposed building a minor-league baseball stadium at Shockoe Bottom, which would have destroyed what archeological evidence remained and would have desecrated the burial ground.”

The story is fascinating. And there’s so much more to learn.  I hope you are inspired to explore something new and eye opening, just as these articles inspired me.

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