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Preserving the Full Scope of America’s Past  

12-09-2015 17:35

Historic preservation plays an important role in making not only Cleveland but all of America a better place to live for people of all income levels and races. I am often asked, why are you concerned about preservation? My answer is quite simple. I’m concerned because I feel it is our obligation to hold our history and heritage in trust for those who have yet to be born. Whether it’s a building, a photograph, or an artifact, preserving these items puts us in touch with our past and gives us a better insight into the future.

Along with addressing the whole wonderful, painful, glorious, and rich history of black people, our mission at American Legacy magazine includes bringing to light historic neighborhoods and communities, both restored and in transition -- neighborhoods and communities that without the proper stewardship might disappear from our historic consciousness.

We have been pleased and proud to present in American Legacy places like Bronzeville in Chicago, an African- American community restored by a public art program. But just as important are places like Weeksville, a black community founded in 19th-century Brooklyn, N.Y. Though only four original houses remain, the area was given landmark status in 1970. But it has taken three decades for true restoration to begin. And there is Princeville in North Carolina, called the first incorporated black town, founded in 1885. Princeville had been nearly swept away by floods more than once, but it persists.

In our upcoming issue, we will be telling the story of the Rosenwald Schools, some 5,300 built in black communities in the south and southwest, with the help of the philanthropist Julius Rosenwald. Many of the schools were abandoned with integration. The few remaining schools, most of them in desperate need of restoration, are now on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s most endangered list. If restored, the schools will not only serve as a tangible example of our history but may be adapted to serve the community.

There are many places like the Rosenwald Schools that need our attention, respect, nurturing, preservation, and revitalization. We’re not only revitalizing these manmade items; we’re revitalizing our own personal spirit. As the founder and publisher of a magazine that is devoted to preserving the history of African-Americans, I know firsthand the positive impact that knowing one’s past can have on a community.

While my product might be different from yours, overall our mission is the same. While the National Trust’s mission is to provide leadership, education, and advocacy to save America’s diverse historic places and to revitalize its communities, American Legacy’s mission is to instill pride and confidence in a community whose history in this country has often been hidden. You might say we are both in the revitalization business.

Now more than ever, our community organizations and institutions must play an important role in revitalizing our communities. The Cleveland Restoration Society is doing wonderful work in this area. The CRS has launched Cleveland’s first neighborhood historic preservation program. One of the largest programs of its kind in the country, this program has assisted almost 500 property owners with projects representing close to $11.4 million in neighborhood investment. CRS has also led the efforts to preserve the Society for Savings Building, the Allen Theater, the War Memorial Fountain, the Eastman Reading Garden, and the historic Gateway neighborhood. The list goes on and on.

I am sure it’s because of such efforts that every time I return home to Cleveland, it seems things have changed for the better. In every neighborhood, from Hough to Glenville to Garden Valley, we can see those changes. Cleveland is no longer “the mistake by the lake,” but it is now a beautiful city full of energy from every neighborhood across the area.

Celebrating Diversity, Seeking Inclusion

Preserving our historic landmarks is important. But what’s also important is that we make sure that the landmarks and buildings that are being preserved represent the full scope of America. Preservation must include every community across America. One only needs to look at the changing face of our country to recognize how important it is to promote total representation. America is a very diverse country, and that diversity is something we should celebrate every day.

One of the greatest things I enjoy about living in New York City is that I only need to step out on the street and I can come in contact with people from every ethnic background imaginable. That’s what makes America a great country.

However, you must remember that as you’re working to preserve landmarks and buildings in your area, you don’t forget the people of your community and what they represent. By being inclusive, the revitalization that will take place will be unmatched, not just in the buildings but in the souls and hearts of those who live and work in the community.

As I close, I’d like to recall the adage that cautions us, “A people with no knowledge of their history are lost.” Whether it’s a physical landmark or a family history, we cannot know where we’re going until we first understand where we’ve been. That’s why the work that the National Trust does nationally and your organizations do locally every day is so important.

As we pass the preservation baton to the next generation, it’s important that we be careful not to drop it. It’s up to all of us to participate. And by doing so, we truly make not only Cleveland but America a better place for our children to live.

Publication Date: Winter 2003


Author(s):Rodney J. Reynolds

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