Bringing History to Life for African-Americans

ASKED why he got involved in the black historic-preservation movement, Keith Stokes seems taken aback. ``Because that's my family,'' the executive director of the Newport County (R.I.) chamber of commerce replies emphatically.

Mr. Stokes, who recently joined the National Trust for Historic Preservation's advisory board, is among a growing number of African-Americans working to preserve the physical legacy of black people's long history in America.

Some African-Americans are engaged in traditional historic preservation: identifying and restoring old buildings or other places that help bring the past to life and tell the story of a people or nation.

Stokes's city of Newport, for instance, was one of the original slave ports in the American colonies. And Rhode Island, which banned slavery in 1790, was a center for free black culture and enterprise long before the Civil War. Preservationists in the state have restored sites that reflect both aspects of the state's black history.

But African-Americans are broadening the definition of historic preservation as well. They see preservation not only as a way to recapture their past, but also as a means to inspire blacks today and to foster community development.

``We must rebuild lives, not just buildings,'' says Glenn Loury, a black professor of economics at Boston University.

To this end, black preservationists are working to save places that are representative of the black experience in America ``even though they may not fit into the guidelines of the National Register of Historic Places,'' in the words of Claudia Polley, chair of the African American Landmarks Committee of the Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana, Indianapolis.

Until recently, few blacks were interested in historic preservation, Ms. Polley says. They associated preservation with ``gentrification'' and saw it as just another way for white people to push black people off their property, she says.

Moreover, Polley says: ``Too many black people didn't think of themselves as important, so why should they consider their buildings as significant and worth saving?''

Now, African Americans see that historic preservation helps change such attitudes.

``If we tell black youths the right stories, they get it as far as understanding their heritage and self-worth,'' Polley says. ``And they'll see that their communities are worth preserving, whether from drugs or crime.

``Preservation shows blacks that they don't have to go to Africa to feel good about their history,'' Stokes says.

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