The world knows heroes and "sheroes" who rose up from slavery: Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, Nat Turner and Phillis Wheatley, to name a few. Yet countless people and places tied to 400 years of Black history in these United States have been lost to time.
The good news: across the country, efforts are afloat to preserve, restore and elevate African-American stories and sites which have been vital to the country’s development.
“We want to shine a light on once lived stories and Black culture,” said Brent Leggs, executive director of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “Some are familiar, some are yet untold. But they weave together the complex story of Black American history in the United States.”
Back in July, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Action Fund announced some $1.6 million in grants thanks to funding provided by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
The 22 sites and organizations — whose applications were reviewed by the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, and the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University — reflect compelling narratives.
They include the African Meeting House, a Black Boston church built in 1806 that was a gathering place central to the abolitionist movement.
Another grantee is God’s Little Acre in Newport, Rhode Island, the largest and most intact Colonial-era African burial ground in the country.
Other sites include the Harriet Tubman Home in Auburn, New York, where the Maryland-born freedom fighter spent her final years. And on Edisto Island in South Carolina, the Hutchinson House was built by a freedman whose father was a formerly enslaved Union soldier.
After the Civil War, formerly enslaved Blacks established Freedom Colonies and created flourishing and self-sufficient communities.
One of the grants was awarded to Texas Freedom Colonies Project, which will work to protect endangered historic Black settlements and cemeteries statewide. “We’re on a mission,” said Leggs, “because the legacy of these sites and many more are so important.”
For instance, National Trust has undertaken a campaign to preserve Shockoe Bottom, a Richmond neighborhood that was once a major slave trade center. Thousands of men, women and children came through its auction houses, jails, and slave trading offices.
Though much of the area has been torn down, advocates say the archaeological remains which survive need to be studied.
“So much of our history was stolen or forgotten,” said Derrick Johnson, president and CEO of the NAACP. “But African-Americans must remember for the sake of our ancestors and children.”
The NAACP has held events nationally and globally to honor the first African ancestors to arrive in English North America in 1619 at Point Comfort, Virginia.
Besides paying homage here in the U.S., the civil rights organization led a delegation of about 200 people to Ghana this month. Organizers called it a “spiritual, historical and reconciliatory journey back to the Motherland.”
In one tribute, participants had the opportunity to write a letter to their ancestors and place it in a fire, a symbolic African tradition.
Johnson said even while African-Americans face some stark realities today, no one can call into question the patriotism of Black people.
In fact, he said, our ancestors built up the colonies with their bare hands, fought for the independence of the nation, and continued to fight for the protection of the union in the Revolutionary War and every conflict since.
“So we must never forget, we are citizen owners of this country.”
(Photo: MPI/Getty Images)