The Unprecedented Success of Savvy Grassroots Politics in Preserving African American Heritage

By Brent Leggs posted 09-30-2016 12:00


Also by Sam Keiser

One year ago, the Maryland Commission on African American History and Culture and its political allies secured annual grant funding for the African American Heritage Preservation Program (AAHPP) in the impressive amount of $1 million in perpetuity, setting a new standard for statewide preservation organizations. By aligning historic preservation values with political activism, Maryland preservationists transformed an ad hoc committee into a sustained institution over the course of 46 years and proved that a coordinated and sophisticated political campaign can do wonders for preservation at the state level.

From Texas to Virginia, African American preservation commissions are typically all-volunteer organizations aligned with state historic preservation offices and representing a broad constituency of preservationists and citizens alike. In Maryland, the 21 members of the Commission determine its mission and strategic plan and identify the projects that receive grant funding. These commissioners are now appointed by the governor and supported by the Maryland Historical Trust’s staff, which administers the sizeable grant program.


In 2015 Professor Dale Green (vice chairman) and Lyndra Marshall (chairwoman) were elected leaders of the Commission. | Credit: Maryland Commission on African American History and Culture via

Creating the African American Heritage Preservation Program

In 2008 the Maryland General Assembly passed a bill (H.B. 782) that consolidated the state’s diversity programming under the purview of the Governor’s Office of Community Initiatives. This was a strategic move for Democratic Governor Martin O’Malley, increasing his outreach to a broad range of communities across the state. Although the Commission, which had enjoyed being under the purview of the Maryland Historical Trust, was not the driving force behind this legislation, it benefited  from its increased visibility within the governor’s office, which led to new opportunities.

The Commission’s first step in an advocacy campaign to establish a sizeable new grant fund to preserve and protect African American heritage was engaging a respected legislative sponsor. They approached Maryland Delegate Adrienne A. Jones—a member of the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland—who introduced legislation (H.B. 915) to create the AAHPP the following year. The Commission continued their advocacy by securing broad legislative support for the bill.


Maryland native Pauli Murray was a trailblazing feminist. | Credit: Photo courtesy Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University

Fortunately, Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Miller Jr. is a history buff. Recognizing the need for such legislation, he developed and championed S.B. 319, a companion to Jones’ House bill. During the 2010 session, Maryland legislators passed H.B. 915 and S.B. 319. With bipartisan support, Governor O’Malley signed the bill, which created the AAHPP and stipulated that, for five years, $1 million per year from the state’s capital budget be allocated to its grant fund. The Commission shares grant administration duties with the Maryland Historical Trust.

Funding a total of 68 preservation projects since its inception, the grant program has supported the 2012 renovation of the Rock Methodist Episcopal Church in Cambridge and the 2014 restoration of Tolson’sin Sharpsburg, among many others. The AAHPP preserves historic sites significant to African American heritage that might otherwise be lost to time and deferred maintenance. Although the grant funding was passed with a five-year sunset clause, the AAHPP’s success and the resulting political goodwill inspired big dreams for its future.

Funding in Perpetuity

In 2015 a new set of players came together to ensure that the AAHPP lived on permanently. The Commission continued to engage Maryland legislators, underscoring the AAHPP’s impact to make the case for increased and continuing support.

This time, geographer and historian Senator Nathaniel J. McFadden, a Morgan State University graduate, introduced S.B. 601 to remove the AAHPP’s sunset clause and renew funding. The Commission and grassroots leaders—including many new voices of people who had already benefited from the grant program—strategically lobbied the state congress, advocating for funding. They educated legislators on the benefits and impact of the grant fund; provided testimony, specifically highlighting the role of preservation in the state’s economy; and developed a public relations campaign to build support among the state’s electorate.

Newly appointed Maryland Secretary of Planning David R. Craig, a Republican, gave testimony in support of renewing the AAHPP and removing the sunset clause. Soon after it passed in the legislature, Republican Governor Lawrence J. Hogan, Jr. signed the legislation into law. Using broad-based political advocacy, the Commission had ensured the long-term sustainability of Maryland’s African American preservation movement.

Politicians were influenced by the success of the AAHPP and its popularity among their constituents, so both the creation of the grant program and its renewal and expansion five years later enjoyed support from the state legislature and the governor’s office. The Commission is an active community partner, and its credibility is bolstered by its membership—a diverse and respected group of design professionals, preservationists, historians, and academics—as well as by its partnerships with the Maryland Historical Trust and the Governor’s Office of Community Initiatives. Its support of the AAHPP was a vital component of the program’s political popularity. Former Commission chairman Theodore Mack and current chairwoman Lyndra Marshall describe the opposition to both AAHPP bills as virtually non-existent.  

Funding historic preservation in the United States is an ongoing battle—from struggles to maintain appropriation levels for the national Historic Preservation Fund, to threats of elimination of the federal tax credit program, to the backlog of deferred maintenance in our National Parks. Preservationists and politicians must fight together to fund the protection of our shared history and values. But we must also take time to celebrate our successes, like the Commission’s perpetual grant fund.


National Trust National Treasure HBCU Morgan State University in Baltimore | Credit: Paul Burke

Governor O’Malley once said, “The most fearless hearts, the audacious dreamers, have always maintained a sense of optimism.” As the U.S. African American preservation movement contemplates the next 50 years, we must be confident that we will witness other African American heritage commissions becoming economically sustainable institutions and savvy grassroots political advocates. Which one will secure the next $1 million in perpetuity?

Brent Leggs is a senior field officer at the National Trust and professor at the University of Maryland’s Graduate Program in Historic Preservation. Sam Keiser was the summer 2016 African American historic places intern at the National Trust and is a student at the University of Northern Alabama’s Graduate Program in Public History.

#Diversity #Funding #AfricanAmerican

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