Diverse and Equitable Historic Preservation in Alabama By Kelly Martin, M.S., NCIDQ, IDEC, ASID, IIDA, CD, LEED AP,

A recent email notification about federal grant funding for historic preservation caught my eye. The grant was particularly focused on historic preservation of places that would preserve African American Civil Rights history. There is a plethora of properties in the state of Alabama that are part of this important history and interior designers can play a key role in their preservation. The great news for those interested in historic preservation of sites that would offer a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive view of history is that, in Alabama, there are numerous organizations, programs and resources available to assist individuals interested in these projects.

The Black Heritage Council (BHC), founded in 1984 by The Alabama Historical Commission, led the way, nationally, as the first African-American advisory council that is part of a state historic preservation office. Chair Emeritus and Founding Member, Louretta Wimberly, and other founding members served as trusted advisors to other states setting up similar advisory councils that followed the example set in Alabama. The mission of the BHC is to support preservation of African American historic places in the state of Alabama and, as part of this mission, it offer quarterly meetings that are open to the public, serve as co-sponsors of the statewide historic preservation conference, serve as community partners in sponsoring preservation forums and help individuals and groups with historic preservation activities related to African American singular properties or historic districts in Alabama. For more information please visit their website at Black Heritage Council: https://ahc.alabama.gov/blackheritagecouncil.aspx.

The Alabama Trust for Historic Preservation is a nonprofit organization that helps local groups throughout the state who are seeking paths other than demolition for historic sites and helps communicate with political groups about the value of historic properties. According to their website, “As Alabama’s only statewide preservation advocacy organization, ATHP exists to support preservation efforts of our great diversity of important places – from indigenous mound sites to roadbeds on the Trail of Tears, to unmarked cemeteries of enslaved people and the plantations they built, to schools, churches, rocket development sites and beyond!”(1) The organization offers opportunities to get involved with hands-on preservation projects which can be a great learning opportunity. For more information, please visit their website it’s Alabama Trust for Historic Preservation at https://athp.org/about-us/. Their website also provides information about historical preservation tax incentives and sources for grant funding.

At the national level, in 2017 the National Trust for Historic Preservation launched the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, “a preservation campaign to preserve and protect places that have been overlooked in American history and represent centuries of African American activism, achievement and resilience.”(2) To learn more, click here: https://savingplaces.org/african-american-cultural-heritage#.YgLc-9_MI2w

We have a unique skill set as interior designers to preserve authentic stories and we can do a great deal of good when we seek to preserve history beyond that of just a privileged few. Two of my colleagues, Taneshia West Albert and Lindsay Tan, recently published a visual essay in the Journal of Interior Design in which they auto-ethnographically explored the Slave House at Gorée Island. Although it is not a local property, I find their words to be relevant here. They stated, “[The Slave House at Gorée Island] acts as a witness to the trauma of ancestral separation, the cultural memory transmitted through every taken step and the common experience of displacement and identity that emotionally connects the present with the past . . . For the Black diaspora, this place now acts as the spiritual mecca for those whose ancestors left a piece of themselves behind.”(3) These words may not have been possible if this historic property had been demolished. This important perspective on history may not have been told and what ripple effect might that have for the future? It is too easy to gloss over a painful past when there is no physical evidence remaining and it also can result in the loss of a piece of architecture that signifies great meaning to the Black diaspora.

The state of Alabama is full of history that is worth saving and African American historical places are a crucial part of it. Let’s take a moment to applaud the efforts of those who have been leaders in our state preserving African American historic places for many years, like the Black Heritage Council, and do what we can to support their efforts. If you are interested in getting involved with an equitable and inclusive historic preservation project or want to learn more about what you might be able to do to prevent demolition or preserve an African American historic property in your area, please make use of the resources in this article and reach out to other ASID members to see if they might also be interested in joining together on a project.
1. https://athp.org/
2. https://savingplaces.org/african-american-cultural-heritage#.YgLSk9_MI2x
3. Albert, T. W., & Tan, L. (2021). The Slave House as symbolic artifact. Journal of Interior Design, 46(2), 55-72. https://doi.org/10.1111/joid.12184

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