The rush to save fading Black history
Hundreds of sites important to Black history are at risk of disappearing as buildings sit abandoned, forgotten, or dismissed amid urban renewal and climate change.
Why it matters: The sites tell stories about abolition, civil rights, and Black entertainment.
Details: Axios Local reporters from around the country this Black History Month searched their cities for sites linked to the story of Black Americans and assessed the status of those sites.
- Axios San Antonio's Madalyn Mendoza found that East Commerce Street hotels and restaurants, which comprised a chunk of the city's midcentury Negro Motorist Green Book destinations, had been razed.
- Axios Detroit's Joe Guillen reports that Detroit's Paradise Valley nightclubs, known for hosting music legends like Duke Ellington, were destroyed decades ago in the name of urban renewal.
- Axios Boston's Steph Solis found that the Harriet Tubman House, founded as a lodging space for Black women who had migrated from the South, has been sold to a developer.
Zoom out: Buildings like the Ben Moore Hotel in Montgomery, Alabama, where the Montgomery Bus Boycott was planned, have been sitting in ruins for decades, Candacy Taylor, a cultural documentarian, tells Axios.
- The facilities are locked in back-and-forth battles among previous owners, cities, nonprofits, developers and lackluster fundraising initiatives.
- The Rossonian Hotel, once the heart of Black Denver's Five Point neighborhood and where Billie Holiday once performed, is another one.
Zoom in: Some sites have been wiped out through neglect and by weather, hurting opportunities for scholars to learn more about history that wasn't formally documented.
- A series of storms and hurricanes in Houston, for example, forced officials to demolish a home in the city's Freedmen's Town -- an area built by emancipated people. The home was believed to have been connected to the Underground Railroad to Mexico.
What they're saying: "Not only do we lose memory and legacy, we lose the opportunity to leverage the power of place and historic preservation to revitalize historic black neighborhoods," Brent Leggs, executive director of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, tells Axios.
- Taylor, the author of "Overground Railroad: The Green Book and The Roots of Black Travel in America," said the sites help show the world how Black people survived and thrived despite racism.
Yes, but: National Trust for Historic Preservation's African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund is working to save 200 Black heritage places, from schools to churches. It's awarded millions in grants.
- The Action Fund also is giving aid to sites once in the Green Book, including the Hotel Metropolitan in Paducah, Kentucky, a hotel founded by two Black women in 1909.
- The National Park Service also says nine sites in Mississippi connected with the 1955 murder of Emmett Till and the 1964 Mississippi Freedom project soon could be joining the National Park System. Some sites have sat abandoned.
Between the lines: Civil rights advocates, historians and social justice travelers have been mapping out sites in recent years to remember and confront episodes connected with trauma.
- Some researchers say the preservation of the sites is part of a movement called "memory work," where scholars engage with the past to revise accounts of history.
- The Equal Justice Initiative, a Montgomery-based legal advocacy group, has mapped thousands of sites linked to lynchings of Black people.
But, but, but: There is no national monument or national museum about enslavement.
One fun fact: Descendants of the Clotilda, the last known U.S. slave ship to bring captives from Africa, later this year will open a heritage center in the community known as Africatown in Alabama.
- Africatown was founded by formerly enslaved people on the ship.