Minority groups climb aboard the US preservation movement

The National Trust for Historic Preservation widens its reach

`AMERICA was built by rich white families, right?'' Byron Rushing asked. His eyes said ``wrong.'' ``That's what the historic-preservation movement tells us,'' the black state representative from Boston's South End told preservationists at a conference here last month.

But the story of America's past that is told only through restored homes of the rich and famous is a ``lie,'' Representative Rushing said, calling upon preservationists to help tell ``the whole story.''

Mainstream preservationists acknowledge that they have a long way to go to incorporate wider racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity into their programs and projects. But diversity has become a major goal of the preservation movement, especially as represented by the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP), the nation's largest preservation organization.

In the past few years, the NTHP has built bridges to African-Americans interested in black history, culture, and community development, and at last month's conference NTHP President Richard Moe announced a new ``partnership'' with Keepers of the Treasures, an organization of American Indians, Alaska natives, and native Hawaiians. The NTHP has expanded the number of African- Americans on its board of trustees and advisory council, and this year a native American was named a trustee.

The NTHP has fewer contacts with the Hispanic and Asian American communities, but it hopes to reach out to them as well, trust officials say.

``We are trying to enlarge the preservation tent,'' says NTHP staff member Ben Handy. Mr. Handy, an African-American, coordinates a scholarship program that helps members of minority groups attend the trust's conferences.

More than 125 minority students and community activists received financial assistance to attend the recent Boston conference.

The scholarship program was created after the NTHP's 1991 gathering in San Francisco. At that meeting, which marked the 25th anniversary of the landmark National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, the mainstream preservation movement took a hard look at itself, says Peter Brink, the trust's vice president for programs, information, and services.

``I recall standing at the podium that year and looking out at a sea of white faces,'' Mr. Brink says.

NTHP raised money to bring minority leaders to the 1992 Miami conference. The effort was aided by a $30,000 donation from the Getty Grant Program in Santa Monica, Calif.

Among the minority leaders who showed up in Miami was Claudia Polley, a filmmaker who was concerned about the wrecking ball's effect on the black neighborhood in Indianapolis where she grew up. Today Ms. Polley serves as the volunteer chair of the African-American Landmarks Committee of the Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana.

``The National Trust has opened up doors to blacks in recent years, and the people there have changed their own thinking about how to define historical importance,'' Polley says.

The NTHP, along with the National Park Service, Polley's committee, and other organizations, is sponsoring a series of three conferences on preserving African-American heritage in the United States. Meetings were held this year in Washington and Boston, and the final meeting will occur in Indianapolis next April.

The NTHP's northeast regional office here recently awarded a grant to the League of Women for Community Service, a black women's organization, for a repair-and-renovation study of a Boston house owned by the league since 1920. The building, a stately but deteriorating brownstone built in 1859, coincidently sheltered runaway slaves before the Civil War.

Native Americans have also entered the NTHP's expanding tent through the trust's new relationship with Keepers of the Treasures, which preserves native traditions and sacred sites.

Polley calls preservationist diversity ``a movement whose time has come.'' She says of the NTHP's relations with minority groups, ``Now the challenge for the trust will be keeping up with the interest and demand it has created.''

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