Since late last year I have been Co-Chair of the Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Justice Working Group, one of four groups comprising the Preservation Priorities Task Force, a joint effort between the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the National Preservation Partners Network. For most of my years (2006-2015) as a Trustee of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, I was Vice Chair of the Diversity Committee and Diversity Task Force. This is an issue that is of profound importance to heritage conservation, especially in the United States.
Diversity is the need to represent the full heritage of a place for the full complement of its communities. Inclusion is the necessity of insuring that every member of every community has a hand in the decision-making of what gets saved, why it gets saved, and how it gets saved. Racial justice is the need to address an imbalance that the historic preservation field helped foster, beginning in the 19th century and continuing into recent memory.
It made matters worse that we focused historic preservation on architectural history, which was the white-manniest of professions until a week or two ago. Moreover, many of the early preservation organizations in the 1920s, including my own, engaged in cultural heritage preservation of minority cultures without any input or involvement from those cultures. Commemoration of the Other simply reinforced power and hegemony.
In June, James Madison’s Montpelier took it a step further and voted to share power with the descendants of those 3,000 American men, women and children who were enslaved at the sixth president’s sprawling home and plantation. You can read about it here. This is ultimately what it is about. When Juneteenth came to Texas 156 years ago, it was followed quickly by sharecropping, poll taxes, and a penal system designed to return recently emancipated slaves into a state of servitude. It is a testament to human resilience that so many rose above despite a multivalent and violent system designed to prevent them from doing so.
What Montpelier did is key, because the only way to achieve Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Justice is to hand power over. This is hard for any institution, any movement, any society. It is like the challenge I wrote about ten years ago as two of my preservation organizations struggled to figure out how to incorporate the next generation. The answer is simple. You hand them the steering wheel and get out of the way.
It has been very rewarding to make some progress in this arena in San Antonio, especially our recent success in saving the 1921 Woolworth Building on Alamo Plaza. It was listed on the World Monument Watch List 2020 in part due to the “underrepresented narrative” of Civil Rights history. That publicity resulted in our finding out that famed sculptor Richard Hunt ate at the Woolworth lunch counter that day.
Our Coalition for the Woolworth Building has been the subject of several presentations and an upcoming article and this fall the Conservation Society will be honored for its “important contributions to to civil rights history in the City of San Antonio” by the San Antonio Branch NAACP. Here is a recent National Trust blogspot on the Coalition.
It took centuries for us to get to this place, and the need for reckoning, for Truth and Reconciliation, is still apparent. Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Calvert recently made an eloquent and personal plea to look to San Antonio’s Alamo Plaza as a place to begin that process in the U.S.
There is a long way to go for both society and the heritage conservation field, but at least we are facing in the appropriate direction.
Aaronetta Pierce, a lion of civic life and civil rights in San Antonio, was named one of the Tri-Chairs of the Alamo Citizens Advisory Committee last week. Shortly thereafter we learned that Council Member Roberto Trevino had been replaced on the management committee for the Alamo by Council Member Rebecca Viagran, a descendent of Tejano Alamo defender Toribio Losoya. Dr. Carey Latimore was also appointed to the Citizens Advisory Committee following his detailed study of Civil Rights around Alamo Plaza, specifically the famed lunch counter integration of 1960 – the first peaceful and voluntary integration of lunch counters in the South during the Sit-In movement.
The Mayor made it clear that the buildings facing the Alamo chapel/shrine – the Crockett, Palace and Woolworth Buildings – are to be saved. This is huge news and a validation of the position taken by the Conservation Society in the fall of 2015. It is also huge for our Coalition for the Woolworth Building, formed in 2018 and including the aforementioned Aaronetta Pierce. The milestones of the Coalition: State Antiquities Landmark status in May, 2019; the release of a plan showing how to repurpose the buildings that same month; a prize-winning ofrenda honoring civil rights leader Mary Lilian Andrews in October 2019 and the listing of the Woolworth Building later that same month as one of only 3 U.S. buildings on the World Monuments Watch List 2020, have now come to fruition. A year ago we held a Donut Day at the Woolworth and then an all-day seminar on the role of Alamo Plaza in Bexar County’s Civil Rights history. We spent the pandemic year continuing to lobby, collecting video testimonials and crafting a series of short videos about the lunch counter integration that are now in production.
The Mayor is also revisiting a few more ill-conceived and unpopular elements of the 2018 plan, including lowering the plaza (which makes the archeologists CRAZY) and permanently closing the streets (which makes the businesspeople CRAZY). San Antonians have heaved a sigh of relief as the Alamo plan enters a new era that will remember the long arc of its history by preserving all of its layers and getting comfortable with the fact that it is in the middle of a city.
And soon we will reveal the story of a young black man who ate lunch at Woolworth’s on March 16, 1960.
The meeting started at 9 AM and ended at 7 PM with a 12-2 vote by the Texas Historical Commission NOT to approve a permit to relocate and restore the Cenotaph in Alamo Plaza. This relocation had been characterized by the City and Alamo Endowment as essential for the success of the entire plan.
That characterization is curious – one would think that the development of the museum – which has a timeline imposed by donor Phil Collins – would be the key element of the plan. Or the closing of the streets. Or even the relocation of the entertainment zone facing the Plaza, which seemed for years to be the key negative motivator for the Alamo Reimagined Plan. But there has been no movement on that issue at all.
The Conservation Society of San Antonio has been primarily focused on the preservation of the Crockett and Woolworth Buildings, as I have blogged about many times. It was interesting to hear the Texas Historical Commission debate the Cenotaph relocation. My first takeaway was: These people know what they are talking about. Laurie Limbacher displayed a razor-sharp knowledge of concrete and armatures, and several other Commissioners made it clear that they understood the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards which discourage relocation unless it is needed to safeguard a structure.
Which brought everything back to the curious logic of “this must happen first”? THC Chairman John Nau was not buying it. He said the site is too important “to suggest that the entire project depends on granting a single permit.” Were they giving themselves a way out? The project started six years ago and has been fueled entirely by public money so far. It was stated during the meeting that no private fundraising had been done yet, something I wondered about last month.
Meanwhile, the Alamo itself has reopened after nearly half a year, although it and the Cenotaph are still surrounded by barricades.