FROM RECOGNITION TO REVERENCE
Clearly, the places we protect as a nation are an indication of what we value, and Black history has been undervalued for far too long. Marking space and culture “with forms that represent the best in human experience” is how Brent Leggs, executive director of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund and a member of TPL’s Black History and Culture Advisory Board, recommends we move from recognition to reverence.
This shift is an aspect of historic preservation he sees as crucial to TPL’s Black history and culture work. Like Imani, Leggs prefers to “tell stories and preserve places that go beyond the stereotypical Black narrative that’s often rooted in slavery or pain or trauma.” They want historic places to tell stories of resistance, self-determination, and agency. Trust for Public Land has been working toward this goal for decades.
Take the example of Nicodemus, Kansas, the oldest and only remaining Black settlement west of the Mississippi River. Angela Bates, executive director of the Nicodemus Historical Society and a fifth-generation descendant of original settlers, says Nicodemus “speaks to the tenacity and the vision that African Americans had.” Founded by Black Southerners in search of a free, safe, and flourishing existence, the town—designated a national historical site in 1996—is an example, as Bates puts it, “of how formerly enslaved people elevated themselves in their own community.”
But its Township Hall—a historic building typically used for celebrations, dances, memorials, and the like—has for years been doubling as a visitor center. Trust for Public Land worked with residents and the National Park Service (which operates the eponymous historic site) to secure land for a new visitor center. Now, there will be a dedicated place for guests to learn Nicodemus’s compelling history.
That’s just one project of many. We helped protect the boyhood neighborhood of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Atlanta; the once-segregated Topeka schoolhouse that figured in the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision; and sites you might not think of as reflective of Black history, such as New York City’s Stonewall Inn. “That is a Black story because Marsha P. Johnson is all in the mix,” explains Imani, referring to a Black trans-rights activist who played an important role in the uprising.
Similarly, it’s worth considering that projects not necessarily earmarked as Black history and culture have Black stories to tell. “There could be a Black history story at almost every [TPL] project, says Walker Holmes, TPL’s Connecticut state director and former interim director of Black history and culture. “It just hasn’t been surfaced yet.” She sees it as akin to the fact that there are often Indigenous stories associated with TPL projects, because land in the U.S. is inextricably linked to tribal histories. “Our work,” says Holmes, “is to elevate the stories along with gratitude for the land and each other.”