Forum Journal & Forum Focus

Network: Not separate but equal 

04-09-2019 10:55

There is success to point to in making cultural diversity a part of historic preservation. One need only read the articles in this issue of Forum or review the twenty-page list of National Trust grants and loans for preservation projects that have helped to preserve historic resources significant to various ethnic groups. Despite this success, some preservation professionals continue to express several misconceptions about the preservation of America's diverse historic environments. One is that there is not much preservation going on in ethnic communities. Look again! While the work may not fall under the official rubric of "historic preservation," hundreds of ethnic communities are committed to activities that document and preserve their heritage. It is the failure of "establishment" preservationists to look for these projects.

Another misconception is that ethnic groups do not "appreciate" the historic environments in which they live. This is also incorrect; at least I am confident that ethnic groups are often as appreciative of their environments as any other group of Americans.

Several years ago, Charleston's Eastside neighborhood, which is historically African-American, was considered for listing in the National Register. This was soundly defeated by the residents. The professional preservationists in Charleston were, to some extent, surprised and all were dismayed because of the neighborhood's great contribution to the city's history. In the wake of this event I was discussing the potential benefits of preservation for the neighborhood with a longtime resident who had been interested in the National Register listing but who was sympathetic to other residents' concerns. As we specifically di 'cussed the differences between the National Register and locally designated historic districts, he mentioned concerns about the strict guidelines that apply in Charleston's locally designated district. I confirmed that he knew these guidelines would not apply to a National Register district and then commented that if Eastside were locally designated, less strict guidelines could be developed. In response he called that idea "separate but equal."

Since South Carolina was one of the states with a case that set precedent on the issue of "separate but equal" schools, his words rang true to me and have guided my thoughts since.

We preservationist must work as comprehensively in ethnic neighborhoods as we have learned to do in other historic areas. We must identify all historic resources and document their entire history-not just the history of the people who paid to have the buildings built. We educate ourselves about other people's history and others about the importance of preservation and the tools that make it possible. We must equally protect all of our significant historic environments.

We are currently going through a period of development in preservation in which we must single out cultural diversity as its own issue. But we need to come out on the other side with a common understanding of our country's heritage and how to protect it.

Two African-American authors have said it better than I.

Maya Angelou wrote in Black Family Reunion Cookbook:

Because we have forgotten our ancestors, our children no longer give us honor.

Because we have lost the path our ancestors cleared kneeling in perilous undergrowth, our children cannot find their way.

James Baldwin wrote in The Fire Next Time:

Know from whence you come. If you know from where you came, there is really no limit to where you can go.


Publication date: July/August 1992




Author(s):Susan Kidd