Today, there is a growing movement to designate and preserve African-American historic places for public use. These efforts are led by volunteers and paid staff who want to learn the best preservation treatments and sustainable business models for long-term success. To help these organizations, National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Northeast Office convened the first annual African-American Historic Sites “Sustainability” Workshop in Providence, R.I., in partnership with the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Culture at Brown University and The 1772 Foundation. Thirty preservationists representing 24 historic sites attended the January workshop.
Why a sustainability workshop? “Sustainability” in this case means to “encourage,” “empower,” and “support” the people who protect historic places. Thus, the goal of the workshop was to enable the administrators of historic African-American sites to develop a business-minded approach to the preservation of significant “sites of memory.” Attendees represented such sites as the Mary and Eliza Freeman Houses, the last remnants of Bridgeport's once-thriving "Little Liberia" neighborhood, which was settled around 1820; The Dennis Farm located in northeastern Pennsylvania and settled by free African-Americans in 1794; and Hinchliffe Stadium in Patterson, N.J., home to professional black sports during the Jim Crow era.
In order to engage sites before to the workshop, and to better understand the audience, Northeast office staff conducted a regional survey of African-American historic sites. Survey results showed that most sites were all volunteer or minimally staffed organizations with some programming. The survey also revealed that many of these sites did not have a strong relationship with national, statewide, and local preservation organizations and lacked a comprehensive approach toward planning. Based on these results, workshop organizers developed a program that focused on a business-minded approach to preservation.
“The Business of Preservation,” workshop was designed to encourage visionary thinking, while reviewing the fundamentals of organizational development. Nationally recognized experts in preservation and nonprofit consulting offered strategies that promote historic site sustainability. Participants attended sessions on organizational development, fundraising, community engagement, preservation planning, and stewardship. They learned about innovative approaches in organizational restructuring such as mergers and co-stewardship agreements, and practical applications related to engagement and cultivation of potential donors. The workshop also included time for networking between sites, trainers, and staff.
What’s next? The African American Historic Places Program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation plans to bring this educational model to other places of diverse history across the country, adding additional sessions to reflect comments from the Providence participants, such navigating the local political environment, and understanding messaging and branding.
Workshops are just one way to help emerging African American historic sites become sustainable. State and local preservation organizations can help by offering resources related to business planning and management, new models for generating income, and sustainable reuse options for historic resources. In addition they can engage site administrators one-on-one through a mentorship program, or direct them to relevant publications.
This first workshop served to “encourage,” “empower,” and “support” preservation nonprofits, from Maine to Delaware. One attendee summed it up best, “It has been an opportunity to gain so much new knowledge, and has provided a source of renewed enthusiasm.”
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