Why the Historic Preservation of Black Spaces Underscores a Powerful Future

published Feb 9, 2021
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Martin Luther King Jr. Birth Home, 501 Auburn Avenue, Atlanta, Fulton County, GA
Credit: PICRYL
Martin Luther King Jr.'s birth home in Atlanta

Sankofa teaches the importance of looking to history to inform our future. In the Akan, Twi, and Fante languages of Ghana, the word translates to “go back and get it.” 

But for Black Americans, looking back to history — and the homes where history took place — is not always that simple.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, African-Americans had few possessions that they could preserve because of dehumanizing tactics used during chattel slavery in the United States. Oftentimes instead of wealth and property, all they could pass down were oral histories, a few trinkets, and the hope for a better tomorrow. That’s not to say that African-Americans never amassed wealth. But like with now-non-existent Black Wall Street, a Black township in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and New York City’s Seneca Village, the largest community of free Black property owners before the Civil War, racism destroyed those assets, rendering community members destitute and displaced. 

Yet as many Black folks do in the face of adversity, they overcame. Numerous Black-owned historic homes and buildings stood the test of time — but not without Herculean effort and some extraordinary circumstances. Prioritizing the preservation of Black spaces for the future, and making it easier to do so, is one of the best ways we can “go back and get it.”

Take Lewis Latimer, the son of fugitive slaves. He filled his life with color as an inventor, drafter, and artist based in New York City, and, naturally, spent his days in a one-of-a-kind home. He moved into a Queen Anne Victorian in Queens in 1903, and remained there until his passing in 1928. By the ‘80s, threats to demolish the home loomed, thanks to new development in Queens. To save it, Latimer’s grandchildren, along with a committee of concerned citizens, leaped into action and successfully registered it under the Historic House Trust of New York City. Thankfully, their efforts worked — today, the Latimer House operates as a museum, and before the pandemic, offered science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics programming for community youth. But having to jump through so many hoops to preserve the place points to the larger problem with preserving Black spaces.

Credit: Lewis Latimer House Museum
The exterior of Lewis Latimer House Museum

Alexandra Unthank, the education program associate at the museum, explains preserving and restoring a space like the Latimer House depends on the ability to look back at old photos. Luckily, there are plenty of photographs of the home in its early days, plus legal records and Latimer’s journals to go off of. But she says one of the main barriers to the preservation of historical Black spaces is a lack of documentation, which was a privilege reserved for the rich.

Credit: Lewis Latimer House Museum
A bust of Lewis Latimer in the museum

“It was expensive to have photographs taken. Most of the people that have that documentation are people who have wealth,” Unthank says. Latimer was one of the few who did amass wealth, thanks to his patents and inventions.

. . .

The absence of generational wealth wasn’t (and isn’t) the only factor preventing the preservation of historic Black spaces. Gentrification presents another roadblock. When longtime residents get priced out and cultural norms shift, the importance and significance of community landmarks often get buried under newer, glossier, and more palatable structures. 

“There is no Black urban community that is not under threat from that cultural heritage being tampered with, erased completely, or developed over,” says LeJuano Varnell, the executive director and main street manager of Sweet Auburn Works, a preservation organization working to promote the legacy of Atlanta’s historic Sweet Auburn District.

Credit: PICRYL
The Odd Fellows Building & Auditorium in the Sweet Auburn Historic District

The Sweet Auburn District is famous for being the birthplace of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It’s where a community of Black Atlanta residents, including King’s family, took root in the early 1900s. The area is home to many Black historical buildings, like the Odd Fellows Building and Auditorium, Big Bethel AME Church, Atlanta Life Insurance, King’s childhood home, and the Atlanta Daily World building, while the eastern side of the district is made up of more than 100 single-family homes. In the 1980s, King’s wife, Coretta Scott King, co-founded the Historic District Development Corporation to ensure that the homes and businesses in this area remained economically diverse while preserving the community’s character and preventing the displacement of long-term residents. The organization’s efforts largely included taking ownership of property titles, rebuilding and redeveloping these homes, and reselling them as subsidized housing. 

Credit: PICRYL
Homes in Atlanta's Sweet Auburn Historic District

However, like many Black neighborhoods throughout history, Sweet Auburn wasn’t immune to the scourges of real estate development and so-called improvements. The Federal Highway Act of 1956, a project that destroyed poor, segregated neighborhoods to build roads, struck Sweet Auburn. The building of I-75/85 split the neighborhood in two.

“A very large portion of my job is thinking critically at a national level of how we can retain not just my neighborhood, but every legacy African-American neighborhood has the ability to retain its own self,” Varnell says. “And when it’s time to reintegrate new capital and new culture and new population into these neighborhoods, how to do it on their own terms so they can grow alongside the inevitable growth and not necessarily be run over by the inevitable growth.” 

This spring, Sweet Auburn Works is partnering with the Fourth Avenue Historic District in Birmingham, Alabama, and the Network for Developing Conscious Communities to present a series of webinars for other like-minded organizations doing the work to preserve Black spaces. With help from a National Trust For Historic Preservation grant, the hope is that the series will invigorate the movement to preserve Black landmarks and historic districts, such as Jackson Ward in Richmond, Virginia, and the Hayti District in Durham, North Carolina.

“We’ll have a platform to be able to share, talk, grow and, begin to actually create an industry so that we can make sure that we retain and maintain the things that we endeavor to keep,” Varnell says.

And on an individual level, those interested in preserving the past can donate to and work with the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, a campaign launched by the National Trust for Historic Preservation to tell the previously unrecognized stories of places where African-American history happened. 

. . . 

The homes of Lattimer, King, and others hold their dreams, desires, thoughts, and possessions — all things that we can look back on and use to shape our future. Their homes, in a way, embody the principle of Sankofa

But what if we didn’t have to “go back and get it”? What if we had it and were able to preserve it this entire time? What wealth of possibilities would be available to us?

In North Philadelphia, an organization called the Village of Arts and Humanities is working to cement a wealth of possibilities for the future. Founded in 1968 by choreographer and dance instructor Arthur Hall, what began as an African dance school now offers programming in music production, fashion design, agriculture, sustainability, and media-making to community youth. The group operates out of a dozen properties in the area, which the Village has been working to gain legal ownership of. With such a heavy presence in this historically black neighborhood, the Village seeks to aid residents in gaining more agency in ownership of their community. 

Mike O’Bryan is the director of learning at the Village; a former instructor at the New Freedom Theatre, a Black performance art school and venue a short distance from the Village; and a practitioner of the West African Yoruba religion. He believes that both Arthur Hall and the New Freedom Theatre’s founder, Johnny Allen, embodied the principal of Sankofa in how they used ancestral knowledge, creativity, and community building to inform how they taught and engaged their own communities. An example of this can be found in Hall’s choice to teach African dance — Hall saw it as a way to bring grandeur back into Blackness.

Credit: Courtesy: Village of Arts + Humanities
Arthur Hall teaching dance in the 1970s

“We weren’t trying to create with tools that we didn’t have experience with or know, or tools that were foreign a hundred percent foreign to our cultural makeup. We were actually using our own cultural best practices,” O’Bryan says. “I think that’s what we do today, or what we should be doing today. And I do think that is a part of the journey of becoming in the 21st century for Black American people.”

Despite the systemic oppression and that African-Americans have had to contend with for centuries, white supremacy hasn’t erased legacies. The tactile permanence of a building or neighborhood leaves a tangible trace of the impact that Black folks have left on America. In a country that has never truly reckoned with its racial and class dichotomies, the preservation of Black spaces supersedes any false narratives of inferiority placed upon Black folks, but rather, cements the power and resilience of the people and informs future generations of their greatness.