How preservation can bridge black history and black future
“My family and I never sat around the dinner table to talk about historic preservation or structural reporting,” says Brent Leggs. As senior vice president of National Trust for Historic Preservation and executive director of African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, Leggs’ lifelong work is to preserve sites sacred to African-American heritage. Little did he know, however, that the stories of his community and even his family had put many of these sites in his orbit since he was a child.
While growing up in Paducah, Kentucky, he regularly passed a building that was in constant need of maintenance a block from the church his family attended. “I found out years later that it was the Metropolitan Hotel,” he says. “It ties into the story of the Green Book, thanks to two pioneering black female entrepreneurs who opened their motel residence for black travelers during segregation. I had no idea national history was prominent in Paducah.
At the University of Kentucky, Leggs studied marketing and earned an MBA, but a chance encounter with the dean of the university’s graduate program in historic preservation would stay with him and ultimately redirect his career path. “I had taken courses in real estate finance and was interested in development,” recalls Leggs. “And he made a very compelling case: I could combine my interest in real estate with history and preservation, which was new to me as a way to help revitalize black neighborhoods.”
He then graduated from the two-year program. Soon after, he was asked to research the Rosenwald Schools, a series of facilities across the South that were part of an initiative by Booker T. Washington and Julius Rosenwald to achieve greater educational equality. for black children. He learned that both of his parents had attended Rosenwald Schools, and the experience inspired a kind of awakening.
“It was spiritual — the physical preservation of evidence of black history,” he says. “Since then, I have dedicated myself to the struggle of black people and the elevation of black achievement through the power of place and historic preservation.”
In 2005 Leggs took up a job with the National Trust, and the importance of his work became more evident with each project. He helped launch the Northeast African American Historic Places Outreach Program, which worked to create a regional movement of preservation leaders saving landmarks significant to African American history. Cultural landmarks like Hinchliffe Stadium in Paterson, New Jersey; Irvington, New York, home of millionaire entrepreneur Madame CJ Walker; and legendary boxer Joe Frazier’s Philadelphia training gym were saved.
“These places help honor the full contribution of black America to our nation,” says Leggs. “Preservation is a guideline for black people to stay connected to our ancestors who, in the face of a racialized and inequitable American society, made outstanding contributions that brought our nation closer to the arc of justice.”
Through his work with the National Trust and the Action Fund, he has collaborated with dozens of local leaders and grassroots organizations whose commitment has inspired him to persist even in the face of daunting challenges. In 2012, Leggs worked with Birmingham, Alabama, Mayor William A. Bell on the city’s historic preservation efforts. The city had a plan in place that involved the partial demolition of the AG Gaston Motel, which had once served as headquarters for the city’s desegregation movement in the 1960s, but had been vacant for more than 20 years.
“Bell had a vision to commemorate and amplify Birmingham’s neglected legacy in the civil rights movement,” says Leggs. He advised the mayor to aim for the highest national historic designation for the motel. It was an ambitious goal, but Leggs worked with Bell and community leaders at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, Bethel Baptist Church and other local sites to make that ambition a reality. After presenting their case to the Department of the Interior and the National Park Service (NPS), they were able to obtain national monument designation for the site.
In 2017, Leggs’ work inspired President Obama to work with Alabama Congresswoman Terri Sewell to establish the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument, of which the motel would be the centerpiece. “It was a great example of how an empowered black community can draw on its cultural heritage of activism to argue that the national preservation of its history is an act of racial justice and should be considered a civil right. says Leggs.
Although historic preservation may seem like a discipline focused on the past, Leggs emphasizes the vital role her work plays in shaping the future of black communities. In the case of Hinchliffe Stadium, his work not only led to the site’s addition to the National Register of Historic Places, but also contributed to its reinvention as a cornerstone of a strategy to revitalize downtown Paterson. , a strategy spearheaded by a black Patersonian, Baye Adofo-Wilson. “It’s beautiful to see how early foundational preservation work leads to something transformational for this city and for our nation,” says Leggs.
He has also seen the impact of the efforts of community organizations in projects such as the Clayborn Temple restoration in Memphis, Tennessee. The 130-year-old African Methodist Episcopal Church served as a meeting place for a strike organized by black sanitation workers in 1968, and once its $18 million restoration is complete, the building will serve as a home for future community activism and advocacy efforts. “That’s why this work is so important right now,” says Leggs. “The legacy of these places creates a model for other social justice activists to follow.”
Even in the past month, Leggs’ work has helped shape another important plan: an initiative to expand the scope of the NPS-operated site to honor the legacy of Brown v. Board of Education which was signed into law by President Biden in mid-May. Thanks to a collaboration between US Congressman James Clyburn and the National Trust, the site that originally included just Monroe Elementary School in Topeka, Kansas will now expand to six additional sites that have had a impact on the landmark Supreme Court case. The legislation represents a new approach to historic preservation, says Leggs. “This new model with multiple sites on a discontinuous border allows us to tell a more complete civil rights story.”
Leggs sees these recent accomplishments as part of a cultural calculation. “In the not-too-distant past, historic sites were preserved to reinforce the narrative of a white majority and communicate idealized, but unevenly realized, American values,” he says. “Too often, the historical footprint of black people has been rendered invisible in our national historical archives and in the American landscape. Much of the work is to fight against the erasure and loss of American history.
Patience is a requirement for a conservator, he says – the typical restoration effort takes years of painstaking work and perseverance to come to fruition. This work is not only useful, adds Leggs, but also necessary. “I deeply believe that only when our nation values black history will our nation value black lives and bodies.”
This story was created as part of Future Rising in partnership with Lexus. Future Rising is a series airing in Hearst Magazines to celebrate the profound impact of black culture on American life and shine a light on some of the most dynamic voices of our time. Go to oprahdaily.com/futurerising for the full portfolio.