Preserve or let go: Blacks debate fate of their landmarks

Its clapboards broken and its roof collapsed, the old "Negro school" had come to the brink of its life. But as renovations on the schoolhouse began recently – a bid to safeguard and honor this tiny railroad town's black history – the project ran into opposition from a surprising source: its former students.

"There's a lot of people who don't want to be involved" because of what the school symbolizes – racial segregation, says Alonzo Penson, who attended the school back in the 1940s. "Black people have come a long way, but we still have a long way to go."

A nascent movement in the South and elsewhere to save what's left of African-American landmarks – old cabins, juke joints, and schoolhouses – is laboring to overcome a host of obstacles, not least of which is deep ambivalence among blacks themselves about preserving places associated with black oppression or discrimination.

"A lot of times have bitter memories attached to them," says Abel Bartley, a professor of African-American history at Clemson University in South Carolina. With integration and new opportunities, he says, blacks left behind the places that had once been central to African-American life. "A lot of African-Americans areas ... lost their significance," he says.

Unless there are written records or a credible oral history about a site or a structure, it can even be difficult to identify which places have a more-than-passing value to black history.

That, plus conflicting emotions within the black community about saving sites associated with slavery or Jim Crow days, makes the task of black preservation societies harder, even as money for preservation becomes available. But it's vital to do so, experts argue, especially because preservation of sites important to African-American history lags far behind efforts to save places of significance to white culture.

One comparison: The Civil War Preservation Trust in the past decade has managed to buy or otherwise protect 22,300 acres of battlefields. Meanwhile, some 14 million acres of so-called "heirs' property" – land deeded to emancipated slaves in the lowlands of the South Carolina and Georgia coasts – have been lost to preservationists as descendants have sold their properties to speculators or lost rights to the land, according to the Coastal Community Foundation in Charleston, S.C.

"African-American properties have been neglected [by preservationists], and there aren't big, palatial houses that scream for your attention," says Nancy Stone-Collum, conservation specialist for the Palmetto Conservation Foundation in Columbia, S.C. "But they are an important part of our heritage."

The chief difference is popular support. Interest has been strong in saving battlefields and other icons of Southern culture, partly because of their potential to attract tourist dollars. Interest in saving remnants of black America has been, until lately, tepid, at best. That's partly because of market forces, as mosquito-ridden swampland suddenly turns a pretty dollar as part of coastal development.

Here in Turin, population 300, the schoolhouse restoration is playing out with down-home drama and small-town suspicions about the town's motives for preserving the structure, says Mr. Penson.

"I think it brings up a lot of [bad] memories," acknowledges Mayor Allen Smith.

Since states and the federal government launched an effort in the late 1970s to preserve key landmarks, attention has been devoted mostly to rescuing homes of great writers and renovating rotting Queen Annes. To be sure, black urban centers such as Macon, Ga., became models of how historical renovation could spur revitalization.

But interest in preservation barely penetrated rural reaches. Cabins of emancipated slaves, popular juke joints, and baptism ponds were, if not ignored, overlooked because of a lack of historical record about such sites.

"What looks to me like an old shack with an aluminum roof and moss all over it used to be the juke joint where budding bluesmen got their start," says Mr. Bartley at Clemson. "Too often, we don't understand the significance of these places."

But attitudes are changing. The first national African-American preservation conference met in Memphis last summer, and last week the South Carolina African-American Heritage Commission held its first annual conference, headlined by Rep. James Clyburn (D).

The number of recognized black buildings and landmarks in South Carolina has grown to 300, from a few dozen designations in 1992. In Georgia, a network of volunteer preservationists has gone from 350 to 2,200 in the past six years. Last year, the National Trust for Historic Preservation handed out four $2,500 grants from a new African-American preservation fund – its first such disbursements.

Other works in progress to preserve black landmarks include the following:

• An effort in Florida to bring back American Beach, a neglected patch of coast that was once a haven for wealthy blacks.

• A new grant program in South Carolina's Richland County to save African-American landmarks, including the Harriet Barber House, a 200-year-old cabin built by freed slaves.

• An educational program in Rock Hill, S.C., in which children go to a renovated, but very rustic, schoolhouse and "work" as sharecroppers.

• Federal funding to preserve and attract tourists to the Gullah-Geechee Heritage Corridor, former rice plantations in South Carolina and Georgia where African slaves first worked in North America.

"You're seeing a kind of catalytic conversion in African-American communities that have been reluctant to look at [their historic] resources and to deal with challenging issues," says Jeffrey Harris, director for diversity at the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Washington. "People are beginning to recognize the loss."

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