Our American landscape needs to tell the full American story.
Older places tell our story—the story of a city, a community, and a nation across time. They reﬂect who we are and how we arrived there. They can imbue us with self-knowledge, understanding, and, sometimes, pride. They can make our cities more welcoming and inclusive places, with a strong community foundation. They can bring us together, help us learn from our mistakes, and inspire us to be better toward one another.
These powers of place to inform identity and create community are particularly important in the United States. Americans are bound together not by blood or common ancestry but by a commitment to the same democratic ideals and the democratic story we tell ourselves. So we have to ensure that all Americans can see themselves in it.
Because cities have been the crucible of the American melting pot for centuries, there’s a certain elegance to Americans simultaneously becoming a more urban and diverse people. We need to make sure, though, that existing communities of color continue to play a thriving role in our cities’ future and that they aren’t being pushed out by this boom in urban redevelopment.
Now more than ever, we also should work to see that the old places, landmarks, and focal points in our cities and communities reﬂect diverse peoples and stories. Our American landscape needs to tell the full American story.
We all recognize that the undercount of diverse historic sites is a problem that needs remedy. Now that the scope of historic preservation has expanded, we can use the tools we have honed over the past few decades to see that more formerly overlooked places are getting their due.
Most recently, the National Trust has been working to accomplish this goal through National Treasures, our signature initiative since 2010. This revolving portfolio of more than 80 threatened historic places of national signiﬁcance includes buildings, neighborhoods, communities, landscapes, engineering landmarks, and even ships. We choose these National Treasures very carefully, based on their importance to the communities in which they reside, the stories they tell about our American past, and the ways we can work to make a positive difference in protecting them and keeping them thriving. We have also worked hard to ensure that nearly half those treasures tell diverse stories.
Among them are places like Joe Frazier’s gym, a modest, three-story brick building in Philadelphia where the gold medal winner at the 1964 Olympics and later heavyweight champion of the world trained. Another is the Palace of the Governors in New Mexico, seat of the old Spanish government and the oldest public building in the United States. Other treasures include the Great Bend of the Gila, a crossroads of human activity for thousands of years, long before Europeans ventured to this continent; Hinchliffe Stadium in Paterson, New Jersey, one of the three remaining stadiums of the Negro League; and the Antiguo Acueducto del Rio Piedras in San Juan, one of the last remaining Spanish-period aqueducts remaining on US soil.
Some of the treasures are entire communities—places like the historic Hispanic neighborhoods along the 710 Freeway in California, including El Sereno, the oldest community in Los Angeles; the Little Havana neighborhood of Miami; and the Sweet Auburn District in Atlanta, once known as the “richest Negro street in the world,” where Martin Luther King Jr. was born and raised, where he led his congregation at Ebenezer Baptist Church, and where, today, he and Coretta Scott King are buried. Others are historic resources that reside in many cities and are under threat of disuse or demolition, such as America’s historic post ofﬁces or Texas’s remarkable courthouses.
One such National Treasure we have been working to draw attention to, even well before this program existed, is America’s 1,000 remaining Rosenwald Schools. The result of a collaboration between the Tuskegee Institute’s Booker T. Washington and Julius Rosenwald, the president of Sears, Roebuck, Rosenwald Schools were the center of the African American education system in the days before Brown v. Board of Education.
In effect, the schools were the result of one of the ﬁrst formal challenge grants. Beginning in 1912, Washington and Rosenwald offered African American communities who wished to build a school an architectural plan and a portion of the funding and encouraged local residents to provide the balance. And they did. All across the South, even in the face of systematic discrimination and grinding poverty, families gave whatever they could to see these schools constructed—to see that the children of their community could get an education and make more of themselves. In total, more than 5,300 buildings were constructed in ﬁfteen states. By 1928, four years before the program concluded, one in every ﬁve rural schools for black students in the South was a Rosenwald School, and together they served one-third of the region’s black schoolchildren. (Congressman John Lewis of Georgia spent his early years in a Rosenwald School, as did the grandmother of Attorney General Loretta Lynch.)
These schools reﬂect the endurance and resolve of the many African American communities who stood up and stood together against oppression and worked to create educational opportunities in the face of Jim Crow. They are a feature of many of our cities that should be remembered. Today, thanks to dedicated volunteers in towns all over the South, they are ﬁnding new life—as community, health, and day care centers, ofﬁces and restaurants, and schools once more.
As the Rosenwald Schools demonstrate, saving more diverse places in our community helps give important stories from our past a greater airing. For instance, Madam C. J. Walker isn’t a household name today like some of her contemporaries in the early twentieth-century business world, such as Henry Ford and J. P. Morgan. But Walker—the ﬁrst free-born person in her family—was in fact the ﬁrst self-made female millionaire in the United States. Born only two years after the close of the Civil War, her story is in essence the rags-to-riches American dream, one that is all the more remarkable and inspiring because she thrived when the glass ceiling for African American women in the business world was more like impenetrable marble.
The hair and beauty products business that Walker founded ultimately employed more than 23,000 sales agents. And her thirty-four-room mansion in Irvington, New York, called Villa Lewaro—one of our National Treasures—stands as a testament to her remarkable success and belief in hard work and perseverance. Today, Villa Lewaro sits proudly alongside the similarly preserved Hudson Valley mansions of well-to-do families like the Rockefellers, Roosevelts, and Vanderbilts.
Even as Walker was building her business, one of those Vanderbilts, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, was rebelling against her high-society upbringing to create a world all her own. Whitney aspired to become a sculptor and arts patron, and she used her wealth to buy a studio in Greenwich Village’s MacDougal Alley. This purchase, she reminisced later, prompted “a chorus of horror-stricken voices, a knowing lifting of the eyebrows or a twist of the mouth that is equally expressive” from those who thought a woman’s place was deﬁnitely not the art world.
But she had the last laugh. Whitney encouraged American artists at a time when more established art institutions considered them provincial. While many collectors balked at the daring new trends coming into vogue then, she gave these budding artists a platform. Today, the Whitney Museum is one of the foremost twentieth-century art collections in the United States, and the Whitney Studio—another National Treasure—remains a haven for artists within the New York Studio School campus.
In 1914, as Whitney’s studio was gaining acclaim in New York, a mother in Baltimore died suddenly from a cerebral hemorrhage, and her three-year-old daughter was sent to live with her aunt and grandparents in a modest home in Durham, North Carolina. That house is also one of our National Treasures, and that young girl, Anna Pauline (Pauli) Murray, would grow up to become a novelist, a poet, a civil rights activist, one of the most brilliant and inﬂuential legal minds of the twentieth century, a cofounder of the National Organization for Women, an LGBTQ pioneer, and even an Episcopal saint!
Blocked from the University of North Carolina for being black and rejected from Harvard Law School for being a woman—despite having won a Rosenwald fellowship to attend—Pauli Murray graduated from Howard and the University of California, Berkeley instead and embarked on a legal career. Her 1951 book States’ Laws on Race and Color was deemed the bible of civil rights law by Thurgood Marshall. In the early 1960s, however, while a counselor to men like Martin Luther King Jr. and A. Philip Randolph, she balked at “the blatant disparity between the major role which Negro women have played and are playing in the crucial grass-roots level of our struggle and the minor role of leadership they have been assigned in the national policy-making decisions.” She would go on to cofound the National Organization for Women and in 1977 became the ﬁrst African American woman to become an Episcopal priest.
Walker, Whitney, Murray—all these fascinating women deﬁed the conventions of their day to achieve unprecedented success, and their stories, like countless others, should be part of the history we honor and preserve. Making their homes National Treasures is a good ﬁrst step, but we also need to bring more sites representing racial and ethnic diversity into our formal preservation designations, like the National Register and the National Landmarks list.
Doing that correctly will involve more scholarship and comprehensive surveys — like the 1988 groundbreaking survey of ethnic historic sites in California known as “Five Views”— that take into account a broader view of history. To take another example, the National Park Service recently completed an extensive theme study of American Latino History to ensure that important places in that part of our story are being protected. Additional needed research is under way all over the United States and is being made simpler through the same communications technologies that have facilitated surveys in Los Angeles, Detroit, and elsewhere. Moving forward will also require listening to communities about the stories that matter to them so that unsung heroes can get their due.
From The Past and Future City by Stephanie Meeks with Kevin C. Murphy. Citations from original omitted. Copyright © 2016 by the author. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C.