This past September, for the first time in the 335-year history of our nation’s original capital, the city of Philadelphia erected a public statue to honor an individual African American. The honoree in question was Octavius Catto, a black Philadelphian who successfully lobbied to desegregate the city’s trolleys and fought to pass the 15th Amendment and who was murdered in 1871 at the age of 32 by a white mob protesting African Americans’ right to vote.
Catto is an important figure in Philadelphia history whose story, until now, was barely known in his home city. As Mayor Jim Kenney pointed out at the statue’s unveiling, “we know more about Rocky—who’s not even a real person—than we know about Octavius, which says a lot.” Mayor Kenney is right. While we as a nation have been making important progress in broadening and deepening our historical record in recent decades, the stories of too many notable Americans like Octavius Catto still remain concealed, particularly when it comes to the monuments and memorials of our public landscape. Silences like these distort our understanding of both our past and our present.
As such, one of the most exciting frontiers in preservation today is seeing these diverse stories come to light. Colleges such as Harvard and Ole Miss are now adding contextual information to their campuses about the enslaved persons who built them. Rutgers is renaming buildings in honor of overlooked African American alumni. At Montpelier visitors now learn not just about James and Dolley Madison but about Paul Jennings, a remarkable man who served as Madison’s personal servant throughout the president’s life, helped save Gilbert Stuart’s famous portrait of Washington from fire during the war of 1812, and eventually wrote the first-ever White House memoir.
There are similar stories in every community across America. Two years ago, I was honored to take part in the opening of an historic site in my hometown of Falls Church, Virginia. There, in 1915, local African American residents led by Joseph Tinner and Dr. E.B. Henderson banded together as the Colored Citizens Protection League to protest a law forcing all black residents to move to one quadrant of town. Two years later, with help from the NAACP, they won their case in the U.S. Supreme Court, which found the ordinance unconstitutional. But until 2015, when the Tinner Hill historic site opened in Falls Church, this remarkable civil rights story was also hidden from public view.
At the National Trust for Historic Preservation, we have been committed for decades to telling the full American story in the places we work to save and to seeing that the many contributions and achievements of diverse Americans are recognized. We are proud that nearly half of our National Treasures, our signature advocacy campaigns, reflect diverse stories; that we work to empower diverse youth through programs like HOPE Crew and our Diversity Scholarship Program; and that we advocate for underrepresented communities through our ReUrbanism initiative.
In light of this growing movement to do right by all of our diverse history, as well as the necessary conversation now occurring in communities across America about the ways in which our history is reflected in our public spaces, we feel that now is the time to redouble our efforts in this regard.
That is why we are proud to announce the creation of an African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, a multimillion-dollar campaign to, over a period of several years, at least double our current programmatic efforts celebrating African American activism and achievement. This effort will also include a new grant program to help other organizations and local sites across the country highlight these important stories.
I’m delighted to say that several major foundations have already committed more than $3.5 million to launch this effort and get us started toward our planning goal of $25 million, and we are working to have more join this effort in the weeks and months to come. We have also formed an advisory council that includes some of our most penetrating thinkers on these issues, such as Smithsonian African American History Museum director Lonnie Bunch, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, and actress Phylicia Rashad.
As we embark on this exciting venture, we also recommit to using our work to tell the full American story and do justice to all its participants. That goes for all important Americans, regardless of race, color, gender, or sexual orientation, whose contributions have been overlooked. Because every citizen should see themselves reflected in our history and in the places in our communities that we work to save.
Stephanie Meeks is the president and CEO of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.