National Trust Pledges $3 Million to Preserve Black History Sites Across the U.S.

A series of newly announced grants will support 40 African American landmarks and organizations

View of Olivewood Cemetery
The Olivewood Cemetery in Houston, Texas, is at risk of flooding and erosion. Newly announced grants will help fund a drainage plan to prevent further damage to the graveyard. Descendants of Olivewood Cemetery via Facebook

For centuries, African American people have left their mark on cultural sites across the United States, from homes where the formerly enslaved lived after the Civil War to universities that educated creative luminaries. Now, a series of grants totaling $3 million is set to support these landmark locations, offering heritage sites much-needed resources to protect bastions of Black history.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP) announced plans to award the grants to 40 historically significant establishments and organizations through its African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund (AACHAF) on July 15. The funds will be split among projects in 17 states, Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C.; they represent the largest single disbursement in the fund’s four-year history, reports Harmeet Kaur for CNN.

“What it means to preserve a landmark in this instance is really about telling overlooked stories embodied in those places—ones of African American resilience, activism and achievement—that are fundamental to the nation itself,” the action fund’s executive director, Brent Leggs, tells CNN.

According to a statement, grant recipients include the Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ, which hosted the funeral of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy who was violently lynched in Mississippi in 1955; the National Negro Opera Company in Pittsburgh—the first Black-owned opera company in the U.S.; and Olivewood Cemetery, a historic Black graveyard in Houston.

Other notable beneficiaries are the Fort Monroe Foundation in Virginia, which plans to create a monument paying homage to the first enslaved Africans who were brought to the British colonies in 1619, and the National Marian Anderson Historical Society and Museum in Philadelphia. The latter hopes to refurbish the home of the late opera singer, who is best known for performing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial after the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to let her sing at Constitution Hall in 1939.

“Some of their stories are known, and some are yet untold,” says Leggs in the statement. “Together they help document the true, complex history of our nation.”

The National Trust formed the AACHAF in the aftermath of the deadly 2017 Unite the Right Rally, which found white supremacists invading a public square in Charlottesville, Virginia, amid ongoing debate over the removal of Confederate monuments. The statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee at the center of the rally was removed from view earlier this month to the “palpable joy and immense relief [of] scores of residents and visitors who lined neighboring streets” to watch the figure’s journey to storage, writes Sarah Rankin for the Associated Press (AP).

In a 2017 statement, the National Trust said the fund aimed to “carry the national narrative beyond Confederate heritage, make a bold commitment to celebrating the overlooked contributions of the African American community and to make an important and lasting contribution to the cultural landscape.”

Since its founding, the AACHAF has raised $45 million and supported 150 preservation projects across the U.S. Among the fund’s previous grant recipients were singer Nina Simone’s childhood home in Tryon, North Carolina, and the Vernon AME Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma—the only Black-owned building left standing after the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, reports Kriston Capps for Bloomberg CityLab.

“Preservation is a form of education and commemoration,” Leggs tells CityLab. “I see them as being one and the same.”

As the Art Newspaper’s Gabriella Angeleti points out, the majority of the AACHAF’s awards have been backed by the Ford Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the JPB Foundation. Last month, philanthropist MacKenzie Scott and her husband, Dan Jewett, contributed a landmark $20 million toward the fund, doubling its size and marking one of the largest donations in the history of the U.S. preservation movement, per CityLab.

“The Action Fund has become the largest resource in American history dedicated to the preservation of African American architectural landmarks,” says Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie Bunch—the first African American person and first historian to hold the prestigious position—in the statement. “These grants will positively impact 40 communities nationwide and result in the creation of a visible, preserved legacy of African American contributions.”