Bringing History to Life for African-Americans

Article excerpt

ASKED why he got involved in the black historic-preservation movement, Keith Stokes seems taken aback. "Because that's my family," the executive director of the Newport County (R.I.) chamber of commerce replies emphatically.

Mr. Stokes, who recently joined the National Trust for Historic Preservation's advisory board, is among a growing number of African-Americans working to preserve the physical legacy of black people's long history in America.

Some African-Americans are engaged in traditional historic preservation: identifying and restoring old buildings or other places that help bring the past to life and tell the story of a people or nation.

Stokes's city of Newport, for instance, was one of the original slave ports in the American colonies. And Rhode Island, which banned slavery in 1790, was a center for free black culture and enterprise long before the Civil War. Preservationists in the state have restored sites that reflect both aspects of the state's black history.

But African-Americans are broadening the definition of historic preservation as well. They see preservation not only as a way to recapture their past, but also as a means to inspire blacks today and to foster community development.

"We must rebuild lives, not just buildings," says Glenn Loury, a black professor of economics at Boston University. …

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