Heritage Conservation as a Civil Right

By Special Contributor posted 07-17-2019 10:05


John H. Sprinkle, Jr.

The Pocantico Center Preservation Fellowship, now in its fifth year, is funded by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. This two-week residential fellowship provides preservation professionals with the opportunity to reside in the historic Marcel Breuer House in Pocantico Hills, New York, while working on a defined project with significant benefit to the preservation field. 

For more on the Environmental Justice movement and its intersection with historic preservation check out our 2017 series When does Historic Preservation Become Social Justice

How did the American historic preservation movement respond to the social, cultural, and political changes that came with the civil rights movement of the 1960s? Ushering in the “new preservation,” the passage and implementation of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 came about just as the American landscape was transformed by the protest, unrest, and violence of the civil rights movement, and the execution of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Reflecting the context of the time, Arthur Ziegler, co-founder of the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, may have expressed the connection best in 1969:

In our work...we must remember that architectural decay and human decay go hand-in-hand. In part, they both derive from and cause one another; certainly they reinforce each other. We cannot save these buildings if we cannot save the people.1

One way to measure the intersection of the historic preservation and civil rights movements would be to compare it with development of the environmental justice movement within the broader field of conservation. The environmental movement, which embraced the mandate articulated in Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, was challenged by many of the same criticisms as was the historic preservation movement: Both were too white, too middle class, and too concerned with their respective resources rather than people.2 Perhaps ironically, both environmentalists and preservationists celebrated the diversity of biological or cultural resources, and yet neither was very accommodating towards diversity among their advocates. As noted by the historian Patricia Nelson Limerick, the conservation, historic preservation, and environmental movements were formed “in a partnership of racial exclusiveness, and they have had a heck of a time breaking free of that relationship.”3


President Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. | Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Although the Council on Environmental Quality recognized as early as 1971 that racial discrimination adversely impacted the ability of the poor to shape the quality of their residential environments, it was not until the early 1980s that the foundations of environmental justice advocacy were laid down during civic opposition to a plan to dispose of PCBs in a landfill in Warren County, North Carolina. Culminating in 1994 with Executive Order 12898: Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations. LULU (locally unwanted land uses) had merged with the tradition of NIMBY (not in my back yard).4

Over time environmental justice advocates adopted the concept of fairness and the moral high ground found within the civil rights movement, where the validity of scientific observation was balanced by appreciation for community perception. With its focus on disproportionate impacts, this approach required policy makers and regulators to account for the distribution of hazards across the landscape. At the end of the 20th century, according to political scientist David Camacho,

the crux of the problem is that the mainstream environmental movement has not fully recognized the fact that social inequality and imbalances of power contribute to the environmental degradation, resource depletion, pollution, and environmental hazards that disproportionately impact people of color along with poor and working-class whites.5

The conventions of environmental justice represented a paradigm shift within the wider environmental movement, which begs the question: Where is the equivalent transformation within historic preservation?

Traditionally associated with the battles over toxic waste disposal, the environmental justice movement has evolved over the years to include consideration of differential access to recreational, cultural, and historical amenities. It focuses on the disproportionate impact on the poor and minorities by government action and inaction. Within a historic preservation context, evidence of such inequalities might be measured by the how the benefits of official recognition, tax credits, and grants have bypassed minorities and the poor, which we might classify within a more comprehensive definition of gentrification (if comprehensive data were available for such analysis).

But what about our history? In a democracy that has enshrined the concept of fairness—or as the bureaucrats call it, the absence of decisions that are arbitrary and capricious—should impacts on the places that reflect the panorama of the American experience also be equally distributed? In short, have historic properties associated with people of color and the poor been adversely affected disproportionately by the American system of cultural resource management? Such impacts might be viewed as unconstitutional if the intent of the legislation and its implementation was to discriminate against a particular group. At the same time, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 presents a lower standard: Proving intent is not required, only evidence of a disproportionate impact on a protected class based on race, color, or national origin is necessary to suggest discrimination. Much of this application would depend on how one interprets the word “impact,” which in other contexts has been linked to the phrase “adverse effect,” both terms of art familiar to the historic preservation community.6 In the interest of bureaucratic efficiency, have certain groups in America become disenfranchised and dispossessed from the places that illustrate their distinct history?

The environmental justice movement was a response to the recognition that environmental laws were disparately enforced, participants in regulatory processes were treated unfairly, and spending on environmental enhancement was directed only toward certain populations. Its foundation and evolution are more nuanced than a simple story of a post-1960s “Columbusing” of disproportionate implementation within a wider environmental movement. During the 1980s, as environmental justice advocacy was on the rise, the preservation movement was not ignorant of its own failings in the fair and equitable application of the benefits and burdens of recognition and stewardship. By the late 1990s we came to understand that the “research exception” regulatory shortcut known as “no adverse effect through data recovery” (which tended to push agencies toward recommending and accepting impacts to archaeological sites as opposed to above-ground resources), thus more greatly impacting archaeological properties associated with minority populations.7 It appears that there was no direct parallel to the concept of environmental justice within historic preservation practice. The question remains: In viewing both differential access and impacts to cultural resources from a civil rights perspective, how would our national system of heritage conservation fare? Perhaps it is high time to find out.

John H. Sprinkle Jr. is an adjunct associate professor in the School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation at the University of Maryland and a historian with the National Park Service. He is the author of “Crafting Preservation Criteria: The National Register of Historic Places and American Historic Preservation” and “Saving Spaces: Historic Land Conservation in the United States.”  Also read his piece "Two Movements, Intertwined"  on Preservation Leadership Forum. 


1. Arthur P. Ziegler, Jr., “Preservation and the Poor,” Preservation News 9, no. 3 (1 March 1969). See also Ziegler, Historic Preservation in Inner City Areas: A Manual of Practice, (Pittsburgh: Ober Park Associates, 1974).

2.Some contemporary critics concluded that the environmental movement had done what Gov George Wallace had been unable to do: distract the nation from the problems of black and brown America. Christopher H. Foreman, Jr., The Promise and Peril of Environmental Justice (Washington, DC: Brookings Institute Press, 1998), 13–18.

3. Patricia Nelson Limerick, “Hoping Against History: Environmental Justice in the Twenty-First Century,” in Kathryn M. Mutz, Gary C. Bryner, and Douglas S. Kenney, eds., Justice and Natural Resources: Concepts, Strategies, and Applications (Washington, DC: Island Press, 2002), 337–354.

4. Robert Bullard, “Residential Segregation and Urban Quality of Life,” in Bunyan Bryant, ed., Environmental Justice: Issues, Politics, and Solutions (Washington, DC: Island Press, 1995), 78–80. Bullard noted that it was difficult for most African Americans to say “NIMBY” because the gap in homeownership rates meant that most did not own their backyards.

5. David E. Camacho, “The Environmental Justice Movement: A Political Framework,” in David E. Camacho, ed., Environmental Injustices, Political Struggles: Race, Class, and the Environment (Durham: Duke University Press, 1998), 12.

6. Luke W. Cole, “Expanding Civil Rights Protections in Contested Terrain: Using Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” in Kathryn M. Mutz, Gary C. Bryner, and Douglas S. Kenney, eds., Justice and Natural Resources: Concepts, Strategies and Applications (Washington, DC: Island Press, 2002),178–208. Citing a case study from Petroglyph National Monument, Cole argues that cultural resources are protected under Title VI.

7. John H. Sprinkle, Jr., “Do Archaeologists Dig, Destroy, and Discriminate? The Historical Significance and Value of Archaeological Sites,” in Michael A. Tomlin, ed., Preservation of What, For Whom? A Critical Look at Historical Significance, (Ithaca, New York: The National Council for Preservation Education, 1998), 169–178.