Diversity and American History

December 18, 2015 Blog, History, Interpretation Comments (2) 188

I took this picture in the United States.

For several years I have been working on a problem: the “Diversity Deficit” in the National Register of Historic Places.  95% or more of our historic sites have as their primary significance the story of a male of European descent.  You can see some of this year’s blogs on the topic here and here.

In some ways, this is an obvious issue – the National Register began 50 years ago when many of our historic sites were defined and interpreted by a history that did not recognize the contributions of women and minorities. More importantly, it did not recognize locales of oppression, exclusion and marginalization of those people. Even though our modern preservation movement arose at the dawn of “the new social history,” practice lagged.

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Woodlawn, a National Trust property in Virginia,  the first after the founding of the Trust in 1949.

Add to that the fact that most landmarks are nominated for architectural significance – this is the easiest and most straightforward category. It is the one we can SEE. Unfortunately, the architectural profession is, and always has been, dominated by males of European descent.

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I even wrote a book about this one.  Photograph copyright Felicity Rich.

Not to say there have not been attempts to correct the problem. In the early 1970s a host of National Historic Landmarks honoring African-Americans were created. My own (accurate, as it turns out) prediction about historic preservation in the 1990s stressed an increasingly diverse focus in the types of stories, cultures and resources being preserved.[1] So, part of the answer is to focus on historical and cultural significance, and include all American cultures.

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Ida B. Wells House, Chicago, named a National Historic Landmark in early 1970s commemorating the civil rights pioneer.  My photo is from 1991.

Diversity was a leitmotif of my first National Preservation Conference in 1992 and I first gave a presentation on the issue at the conference in 1993. Last month we had a panel on the issue at the 2015 conference, focused specifically on HOW we can make the system work to express the true diversity of American history.

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Our panel in DC:  Me, Julianne Polanco, Brad White, Joe McGill, Allyson Brooks

The panel included Allyson Brooks and Julianne Polanco, who serve as the State Historic Preservation Officers for Washington and California respectively. Their experience, especially with Indian tribes, has highlighted the limitations of the current system when it comes to minority history and sites. These SHPOs have been innovative in creating space for a more complete story by tweaking the processes for listing landmarks and reviewing projects that affect cultural resources beyond buildings by architects.

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Mount Taylor, at 12,000 feet taller than any building anyway.  A National Treasure in New Mexico, sacred to Navajo people.

Another panelist was Joe McGill, who has been reenacting forgotten, overlooked and deliberately erased history for the last two years with his Slave Dwelling Project. He sleeps in former slave dwellings throughout the country, drawing attention to a lost quotidian reality. Many large plantation houses have expanded their interpretation to encompass the lives of enslaved peoples who made those houses possible.

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Simply expanding the types of assets and the types of cultures we “celebrate” is not enough. We need to deal with the dynamics of our history and culture that were embedded in a racist system which systematically dispossessed and disenfranchised peoples of color.  This means that traditional ideas of integrity, for example, are obstacles to conserving heritage.  Joe McGill finds that all the time.

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Joseph McGill presenting to students at Burton Place.

The time is now. We are at the end of a year that has witnessed a renewed discussion about the American race system. The many stories of unarmed citizens killed by police is the long tail end of a history that began with the earliest police forces, designed to prevent slave revolts. The shockingly transparent racism in the political realm is a legacy of the white privilege system that overlay the founding of the United States.

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From exhibit in Chicago Cultural Center as part of Architecture Biennial, prelude to Jeanne Gang’s Chicago police station design.

Current events have sparked a more complete understanding of the history of “white privilege.”  More than understanding, there needs to be acknowledgement and reckoning to avoid what Eula Biss decries as “the constant erasure of the past and present”  brought about by denial of this ongoing historical reality.

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Mission Espada south of San Antonio, a World Heritage Site.

Heritage conservation, like the practice of history itself, has the obligation to wrestle with these realities.  Our current approach to preserving historical resources employs concepts like “period of significance” that deny continuity with the present and “integrity” that deny cultural erasures that are still open wounds.

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Interpretive panels in Mission Concepcion, Texas.

As with all difficult encounters, there is a massive positive opportunity here.  For too long “historic preservation” has seemed a tool of the elite, those who understand and can name the intricacies of architecture and the Byzantine pathways of regulatory compliance.  Even the democratizing influence of the historic district (which I wrote about in my dissertation) ends up on that path, it seems.

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what a web we weave…

I am advocating for interpretation as a key piece of the next 50 years of the National Register of Historic Places, and this is arguably an area where great progress has been made.  But the real opportunity is genuine community involvement not simply in recognizing their neighborhood, but recognizing the complex, contested, ugly, beautiful and messy history that is the United States.

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Does this building have MORE or LESS heritage with the mural?

The way to do this in heritage conservation is to incorporate not only cultural historians, but members of every cultural community PRIOR TO the identification and evaluation of landmarks. This can drastically expand support for heritage conservation and make it a tool of the people.

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Conserving heritage is a fundamental human activity, a part of growing up, of growing in general, of retaining the legacy of higher thought and creative production that separates us from other species.

Culture is what we build that outlives us.  It is also what precedes us, what makes us human.  It cannot be shared widely enough or understood deeply enough.

[1] Michael, Vincent, “Preservation in the 90’s”, Metropolitan Review, Fall, 1991

2 Responses to :
Diversity and American History

  1. La Potosina says:

    I find your argument very interesting as you bring up questions I’ve been wondering about myself the more I’m learning about how United States views historic preservation/conservation: why is history always presented from the viewpoint of males of European descent? But it is not just in the United States. I would say other countries have similar problems.

    I also agree with your idea of incorporating members of the community prior to identifying a historic landmark. I would love to hear their stories and what they have to say about their heritage or place of significance.

  2. Mary Kate says:

    I really like the tact you’ve taken presenting this, but it’s kind of maddening to see that changing the conversation is taking this long. Preservation is too new a field to be stuck already, isn’t it?

    That said, this is the way preservation becomes part of communities. This is the way preservation stays relevant.

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