The work of the South Carolina African American Heritage Commission (SCAAHC), which recently celebrated its 25th anniversary, illustrates how grassroots organizations and leaders can have a significant impact on historic preservation efforts in their state. Founded as a council in 1993 and established as a commission in 2001, the SCAAHC was created to identify and promote the preservation of African American historic sites, structures, buildings, and culture in South Carolina. Comprised of about 30 members, their mission is to assist and enhance the efforts of the South Carolina Department of Archives and History, which includes South Carolina’s state historic preservation office.
Today the Commission offers technical advice, encourages and supports marker placements and listings in the National Register, promotes African American history in the state’s curriculum, and acts as a forum and resource for collaboration with other organizations. In addition to holding a statewide diversity conference, the SCAAHC launched the Green Book of South Carolina travel guide to African American historic sites in South Carolina in 2017 and created the Teacher’s Guide to African American Historic Places in South Carolina.
Jannie Harriot, who has been active with the SCAAHC for 26 years and is described by Brent Leggs, the executive director of the National Trust’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, as “the no-nonsense, doggedly persistent heartbeat of their organization.” In this Q&A, Harriot shares her insights about lessons learned, African American historic preservation, and sustaining an organization such as the SCAAHC.
As mentioned, the SCAAHC has recently celebrated its 25th anniversary. What are some of the biggest lessons that your organization has learned? What are your biggest concerns?
Harriot: As we marked our 25th milestone anniversary, we had an opportunity to document and measure the tremendous impact the organization and its members have had on South Carolina. At the same time, we are mindful that our organization needs to be better known and appreciated among citizens, stakeholders, and elected officials. We are also mindful of the expanding needs of African American historic preservation, especially in rural areas of the state—needs that often outweigh our limited staffing and financial capacity. Regularly, we must remind others that we are a volunteer-led and -driven organization.
What do you feel is the role of statewide African American historic preservation commissions and why are they so important?
Harriot: Statewide commissions can provide leadership in identifying and promoting the preservation of the rich history of African Americans. Statewide commissions can also coordinate the activities of local and regional organizations, provide technical assistance, as well as highlight and recognize the work done in local communities.
What obstacles/challenges have you or your organization faced in your work?
Harriot: Our biggest challenge has been funding. When the Commission was created, it was created with no funding; however, we have been able to secure $25,000 from the South Carolina General Assembly during the past fifteen years. Financial support comes basically from grant writing and donations from the public and private sectors.
To further help with funding capacity, you, along with members of the Commission’s nonprofit fundraising organization, South Carolina African American Heritage Foundation (SCAAHF), participated in the Preservation Leadership Training Board Building and Preservation Planning workshop in Annapolis, Maryland, which was hosted by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, in partnership with the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC).
What are some of the lessons that were learned at the workshop? What tools did your organization use to implement those lessons in your own processes going forward?
Harriot: Based on the lessons learned from the training, we decided to develop the Foundation’s Board of Directors separate from the Commission. Following the training, the SCAAHC elected a board of directors for the SCAAHF and provided board training in January. It has also been decided to create a new profile for the Foundation separate and apart from the Commission. In doing so, the Foundation will assume complete fundraising and resource development to support the work of the Commission. Following the election of the board, a planning session was held to outline steps and make assignments to successfully complete the six-month program. As a result, we met all the goals outlined during the training. We exceeded our goal of raising $25,000 and held a very successful 25th anniversary celebration.
The SCAAHF was recently awarded a grant from the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund. How do you feel that it will help your organization going forward and what does the SCAAHC hope to accomplish with it?
Harriot: Everyone was excited about the opportunity to work on creating a plan for succession and sustainability to sustain the work we have done for the last 25 years. This will give us an opportunity to work on fundraising and recruiting younger members. The current average of members is between 50 to 60 years of age. Many of us have served for more than ten years and three of us have served for 25 years.
The South Carolina African American Heritage Commission attended a Preservation Leadership Training on Board Building in 2018. Here they are pictured with other attendees from that training.
What advice do you have for other African American preservation organizations?
Harriot: My advice to other organizations would be to set realistic goals. Choose board members who are committed to preserving the history and culture. Develop strong collaborations with other state agencies and cultural organizations in your state. Reach out to younger generations and develop their interest in preservation.
So many African Americans are doing historic preservation work, but often don’t refer to themselves as “preservationists.” Why do you think this happens?
Harriot: Although I have been involved in preservation for the past 25 years, I do not consider myself a preservationist. I came to this work because my high school was about to be sold to build a Walmart. It was out of a love for my high school that I became interested in preserving our history and eventually was appointed to the South Carolina African American Heritage Commission when it was created.
We are just trying to hold on to what makes us who we are. We never want people to forget that our people helped to build this country and that we belong here and are entitled to all the rights and privileges as the majority population.
Why do you do this work?
Harriot: What motivates me is the desire to have the history of our people and their accomplishments recognized and appreciated. Also, to ensure that the next generations of African Americans know and appreciate it. As a child growing up, I was not aware of the vast contributions of African Americans to this state and country. I want my more than 150 nieces and nephews to know what their people contributed. I take pride in helping to make that happen in this state.
What advice would you give to other African Americans considering historic preservation as a career or wanting to become involved?
Harriott: I recommend that other African Americans who aspire to work in preservation establish a mentoring relationship with someone who has professional expertise in the field. I recommend that they become involved with an organization or entity dedicated to documenting and preserving African American history. I also recommend that they take as many opportunities to attend conferences, workshops, or professional development sessions to deepen their knowledge of history and best practices in the field of preservation.
For more information about the SCAAHC and the Foundation, please visit their website.
Jannie Harriot is the Chairperson of the South Carolina African American Heritage Commission and the Executive Director of the South Carolina African American Heritage Foundation.
Lawana Holland-Moore is the Program Assistant for the National Trust’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund. She is also the 2014 National Trust Mildred Colodny Scholar.