NEW GRANTS ARE HELPING TO PRESERVE 27 U.S. sites dedicated to African American history. Sites connected to Boston artists; Los Angeles architect Paul Williams; and the historic homes performer and activist Paul Robeson, blues legend Muddy Waters, inventor Lewis Latimer, and poet Lucille Clifton, are among the beneficiaries. The support from the National Trust for Historic Preservation comes in the midst of nationwide calls for racial justice and the latest revival of public conversations surrounding Confederate monuments.

Nationwide, debates are weighing whether the statues should be contextualized or removed, and if taking them down constitutes erasing history or correcting it. Whatever the outcomes, which are not universal and vary by monument and jurisdiction, the discourse sharpens the need to ensure sites that document Black history and the contributions of important African American cultural figures are preserved and have the resources necessary to help tell the full story of America.


Founder’s Church of Religious Science in Los Angeles was designed by architect Paul R. Williams. | Los Angeles County Archives, Courtesy Los Angeles Conservancy


The National Trust announced $1.6 million in grants made through its African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund (AACHAF) on July 16. Provided by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the funds address four categories of need: capital, capacity building, project planning, and programming and interpretation.

Among the recipients, grants were awarded to the Founder’s Church of Religious Science in Los Angeles, which was designed by architect Paul R. Williams in 1959; the National Center of Afro-American Artists at Abbotsford, which is housed in an 1872 Victorian mansion in Roxbury, Mass.; the Association of African American Museums in Washington, D.C., to help the strengthen its board and train members in the “preservation, identification, and evaluation of African American historic sites”; and the Omaha Star Publishing Company, which continues to operate the largest African American newspaper in Nebraska out of a 1922 building.

One of the grants supports documenting the contemporary moment in Minneapolis where residents are calling for racial justice and police reform in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. The City of Minneapolis, Minn., is receiving a $50,000 AACHAF Vision Grant in the wake of the murder by police of George Floyd and the subsequent outpouring, demonstrations, and protests in the city. The grant will help preserve the memorials that have sprung up, record history as it is being made, and also focus on “uncovering the stories of Minneapolis’ African American past.”

When the grants were announced, Brent Leggs, executive director of the Action Fund, emphasized the importance of the sites, and the connections between place, space, and history. Preservation, he has said, is ultimately about people and stories.

“The recipients of this funding exemplify centuries of African American resilience, activism, and achievement, some known and some yet untold, that tell the complex story of American history in the United States,” Leggs said in a statement. “With urgency and intention, the nation must value the link between architecture and racial justice, and should fund these and other cultural assets to ensure their protection and preservation.”

“With urgency and intention, the nation must value the link between architecture and racial justice, and should fund these and other cultural assets to ensure their protection and preservation.” — Brent Leggs

May 31, 2020: The City of Minneapolis received an African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund Vision Grant to help preserve the history being made in the city where a makeshift memorial and mural outside Cup Foods pays homage to George Floyd who was murdered at the site by Minneapolis police on May 25 (Minneapolis, Minn.). | Photo by Zach D. Roberts/ NurPhoto via Getty Images


The African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund was launched in November 2017, in the wake of the the massacre at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, S.C., and white supremacist, Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va. The goal is to raise $25 million over five years to preserve and amplify African American history. Several foundations are partners in the effort, which is guided by an advisory council co-chaired by Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, and actress and director Phylicia Rashad, who serves as an ambassador for the fund.

Thus far, $4.3 million has supported African American sites, critical to telling the story of America’s culture history.

In 2018, the initial round of more than $1 million in grants went to 16 sites including the August Wilson House in Pittsburgh, Pa.; Civil Rights Sites of Birmingham in Alabama, 16th Street Baptist Church, among them; Weeksville’s Hunterfly Row Houses in Brooklyn, N.Y.; and Wilfandel Clubhouse, the oldest African American women’s club in Los Angeles, founded in 1945.

The fund gave $1.6 million in grants to 22 sites in 2019, including Clinton A.M.E. Zion Church in Great Barrington, Mass.; Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C.; Emmett and Mamie Till Interpretive Center in Sumner, Miss.; God’s Little Acre in Newport, R.I.; Harriet Tubman Home in Auburn, N.Y.; Langston Hughes House in Harlem, N.Y.; Pauli Murray Home and Center for History and Social Justice in Durham, N.C.; and Treme Neighborhood Revival Grants Program in New Orleans, La.

The 2020 investments include sites from Oregon, Oklahoma, and Illinois to Texas, Tennessee, Virginia, and Pennsylvania.

In recent years, the National Trust has designated the homes of John and Alice Coltrane, Madame C.J. Walker, and Nina Simone as National Treasures.

In recent years, high-profile African American sites have been designated National Treasures, including the John and Alice Coltrane Home in Dix Hills, N.Y.; Villa Lewaro, Madam C. J. Walker’s estate in Irvington, N.Y.; and the childhood home of Nina Simone in Tryon, N.C.

Being identified as a National Treasure means the National Trust takes “direct, on-the-ground action to save these places and promote their history and significance.”

The National Trust is working with several organizations to preserve the home of Simone, the singular singer, songwriter and civil rights activist whose range spanned jazz, blues, folk, R&B and classical music. The preservation effort was made possible by four New York City-based visual artists—Adam Pendleton, Ellen Gallagher, Rashid Johnson, and Julie Mehretu—who stepped up and purchased the abandoned home for $95,000 in 2017, saving it from potential demolition. CT


SEE FULL LIST of 2020 African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund grants


June 19, 2018: Brent Leggs, executive director of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, speaks at the dedication of the childhood home of Nina Simone in Tryon, N.C. | Video by WNCW Studio B


A few books explore the life and work of Paul R. Williams. “Paul R. Williams Architect” and “Paul R. Williams: Classic Hollywood Style” showcase the legendary designs of Williams in lavishly illustrated volumes authored by Karen E. Hudson, the architect’s granddaughter. Also by Hudson, “The Will and the Way: Paul R. Williams, Architect” tells Williams’s story. Forthcoming in September, “Regarding Paul R. Williams: A Photographer’s View” features photographs by Janna Ireland of the architect’s buildings. Nina Simone opens up in “I Put a Spell on You: The Autobiography of Nina Simone.” Authored by Alan Light, “What Happened, Miss Simone?: A Biography” further examines Simone’s life. Also consider, “On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker” to learn more about Madame C.J. Walker whose New York estate, Villa Lewaro, is now a National Treasure. First published in 1936, “The Negro Motorist Green Book” (Facsimile Edition 1940) provided a guide for Black travelers for find safe and legal places to eat, sleep, and get gas across the United States in the age of Jim Crow.


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