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“Telling the Full History”—new action fund to preserve African American heritage sites

Shockoe Bottom at the Kanawha Canal, Richmond, Virginia, in 1865

A $25 million “action fund” that will be used to “address critical funding gaps for the preservation of African American historical sites.”

Newport is primarily known today for its spectacular summer cottages such as The Breakers, The Elms, Marble House, Rosecliff, and others from America’s Gilded Age, which are now operated as museums by The Preservation Society of Newport County. But Newport also contains another unique landmark; the Newport Casino was commissioned in 1879 as a private club for Newport’s wealthy summer residents. The club opened in 1880 and the Real Tennis Club and Casino Theatre were completed the following year. “Real tennis” refers to the original game played on an inside court before “lawn tennis” on an outdoor court became popular in the 20th century.

By the 1950s, the club was struggling financially until wealthy Newport summer residents Jimmy and Cathy Van Alen purchased the property and opened the Tennis Hall of Fame in the Casino in 1954. The museum together with continued tennis matches provided the financial stability needed to save the original building and grounds. In 1984, the International Tennis Association recognized the museum as the International Tennis Hall of Fame.

When the Tennis Hall of Fame was founded, segregated sports facilities in the southern states restricted access for young African American athletes and potential sportsmen and women. In Lynchburg, Virginia, an African American doctor named Robert Walter Johnson took matters into his own hands, opening a tennis camp on his own property which contained a tennis court. It is difficult to overstate the impact of Dr. Johnson’s efforts on behalf of the sport of tennis; both Althea Gibson and late Arthur Ashe, both inductees into the International Tennis Hall of Fame,benefited from his tutelage. Post-humously, Dr. Johnson also was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2009.

Now, descendants of Dr. Johnson, through the Whirlwind Johnson Foundation together with the US Tennis Association, are working to restore and preserve this important place—a landmark in the history of the international sport of tennis.

The preservation of Dr. Johnson’s house and tennis court is but one in a long list of efforts and initiatives to identify, preserve, and interpret the full range of African American history and culture.

Green Book Sites

Before the days of Smartphones, Google, and the internet, an enterprising African American man named Victor H. Green, published an annual guidebook to sites—restaurants, motels, beach resorts, etc.—that welcomed African American travelers. In the days of Jim Crow laws and other legal and social policies of racial segregation, these guides—known by various names but commonly known as the Green Book—were indispensable for African Americans who traveled across the country for business or pleasure. Today, several researchers are seeking to document, and preserve, these Green Book sites.

Georgetown University, Dumbarton House, and Monticello

Public and private institutions across the United States (most notably in former slave-holding states along the Atlantic seaboard, particularly in the south) have been making strides to both document and interpret the role of slavery, and the work of enslaved Africans, in the success of those institutions. The extensive—and ironic—involvement of slave labor in some of America's most famous symbols of freedom, including the White House and US Capitol, have been recent subjects of inquiry. DC's well-regarded Georgetown University in particular has been undergoing a relatively thorough search for the meaning of the university's profit off of slave labor—including the selling of slaves--in the history and success of that institute of higher learning.

In addition to field slaves, many 18th- and early 19th-century households across the original 13 states often used slaves as household staff. The historic Dumbarton House in Washington, DC's Georgetown neighborhood conducted research to reveal these "hidden figures"—the household staff of the Nourse family who owned Dumbarton House in the early 19th century. At Monticello, one of the most controversial aspects of his slave ownership was the perpetual story of having sired children from Sally Hemings, one of his slaves. Today, the historic Jefferson home of Monticello is now fully embracing this part of Jefferson's role in history, incorporating not only the interpretation of slave life at the estate, but also fully recognizing Sally Heming's important position with regard to Jefferson's life and that of her children and their descendants.

National Park Service, National Monuments, and World Heritage

Under the National Historic Landmarks Program, the National Park Service has developed a series of initiatives designed to identify, protect, and interpret sites that represent a fuller picture of the complicated history of the United States. In the past few years, the Park Service has completed or initiated theme studies focused on Civil Rights in America (various studies including 2000, 2004, and 2007), American Latino Heritage (2013), Labor Archaeology of the Industrial Age (2015), among numerous others. In addition, NPS has developed heritage initiatives to identify sites relevant to a number of under-represented groups, including the Latino American Heritage Initiative, the Asian American Pacific Islander Initiative, Women’s History, and the LGBTQ Heritage Initiative.

The newest theme study focuses on the Reconstruction Era of the United States—1861-1900 when the nation was divided by Civil War and sought to rebuild the nation in the wake of the war when, after passage of the 14th amendment of the US Constitution, African Americans were provided full US citizenship. The positive sound of “reconstruction” belies the many ugly stories—and many inspirational stories—that explain this vital part of the nation’s history.

President Obama continued his practice of honoring and protecting the nation's natural and cultural heritage by naming five new national monuments in the closing weeks of his presidency. In keeping with the National Park Service's on-going initiatives to expand our nationally recognized heritage sites to more broadly and inclusively reflect our full history, three of the new monuments honor important aspects of the long struggle for civil rights for African Americans.

The NPS also awarded a series of grants to assist local communities and organizations to research, preserve, and promote important sites. The city of Birmingham, Alabama, the site of such significant struggles in the long fight for civil rights for African Americans, received three such grants last year. These sites also are being considered for including the US Tentative List for World Heritage designation, which would further promote the promise of the Civil Rights fight in the US to the entire world. The US Tentative List for World Heritage designation was amended this year to add these sites, among others.

National Trust’s New Action Fund

The newest entry in this long series of African American Heritage initiatives was just launched by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Based in Washington, DC, the National Trust is a privately funded non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of America’s historic places. On November 15, the National Trust recently announced the creation of a $25 million “action fund” that will be used to “address critical funding gaps for the preservation of African American historical sites.” Funds will also be used to help preserve endangered sites, such as Shockoe Bottom in Richmond, Virginia; Shockoe Bottom was placed on the National Trust’s endangered list in 2014 and also became one of the Trust’s American Treasures because of a redevelopment plan that would have placed a new baseball stadium in the neighborhood. (The photo of the Kanawha Canal in 1865 at Shockoe Bottom is in the public domain).

Read more below to learn about the purpose of this fund.


Fund set up to preserve African American historical sites

By The Associated Press

The New York Times

November 15, 2017

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