Historic Preservation and the African-American Community

Article excerpt

Historic Preservation and The African-American Community

A walk down the famed U Street corridor of Washington, D.C., in earlier times, would take one past the prosperous Industrial Bank; the Howard, Dunbar and Lincoln Theaters, which together with the spacious Colonnade Club, gave U Street the nickname "Black Broadway;" the imposing Masonic Hall; the offices of the Afro-American newspaper; the famous jazz club Bohemian Caverns; shops; florists; Ben's Chili Bowl; the private home where Malcolm X stayed during his visits; and offices of doctors and lawyers. On the side streets were found beautiful middle class homes; churches; schools; the Black designed, financed and constructed Whitelaw Hotel; the first Black YMCA in the country; and the home of Mary McLeod Bethune. A few blocks away, at the top of the hill was the eminent Howard University with the fabulous LeDroit Park nestled at its foot, where Black Washington brahmin and luminaries such as Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Mary Church Terrell, Senator Edward Brooke, and Dr. Anna J. Cooper lived.

U Street and other Black neighborhoods of Washington made up what was once termed the "undisputed center of American Negro Civilization."(1) There is barely a trace today of the once magnificent neighborhoods and rich culture. The construction of public housing in the 1930's, alleged slum clearance and displacement beginning after World War II in Georgetown and Foggy Bottom, and later integration, development, poverty, disinvestment and changing demographics have all contributed to the diminution of the compelling presence of Black Washington.

The same could be said for Jackson Ward in Richmond, sections of Harlem in New York, Ninth Street in Little Rock, Auburn Avenue and the West End in Atlanta, Roxbury in Boston, Greenwood in Tulsa and so on. It is apparent that every day urban historically Black communities are being destroyed through urban renewal, gentrification or neglect because these neighborhoods are not valued for what they have represented. If nothing is done about it, the history and culture of traditional African American neighborhoods, an historical source of individual and community pride and stability, will be lost to the current and future generations of African Americans.

This paper proposes that historic preservation can be a useful tool for stabilizing and revitalizing African American Communities. Our neighborhoods present the physical and spatial representation of our cultural heritage and are as important as the recitation of names and dates.

In every city, there are neighborhoods that have been preserved, or restored, to their former appearance. These are a great source of civic pride, and economic development, as will be discussed later. And many of these neighborhoods have been designated historic districts. Despite the overwhelming amount of attention that has been given to preserving historical white communities, the number of groups engaged in preserving and or restoring the remains of historical Black areas as African American communities is growing. Fruits of such efforts in the District of Columbia are the recent renovations of the historic Whitelaw Hotel into affordable housing and the restoration and reopening of the Lincoln Theater.

There are elements, however, that make it difficult to promote historic preservation especially in Black communities. As stated earlier, people do not understand or are unaware of the history that surrounds them. There was a 50th-year commemoration of Langston Terrace, a public housing development in Washington, designed and built in 1937 by an African American, Hilyard Robinson. The curator for the event recounted the amazement of current residents. Suddenly aware of the significance of their homes, some, for years, had walked by the stone friezes and statues depicting the diaspora of African American people, never really noticing the story told by the art.(2) For a brief moment, that community felt a sense of pride that had been lost over the 50 years of its inception. …