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Brent Leggs is committed to preserving the legacy of sites you've probably never heard of—but should. As the Executive Director of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, Leggs ensures buildings and sites linked to the history of Black American triumphs and accomplishments endure. But when the historic preservationist starts recounting the recent exploits of the Fund, it’s easy to see his work in a more dramatic light. You might even consider his team somewhat of the kind of historical action heroes from a film like National Treasure or Raiders of the Lost Ark—they’re everyday heroes rescuing decrepit buildings and saving memories of Black American pioneers who might otherwise have been forgotten.
“We view the action fund as a social movement,” says Leggs, a soft-spoken historian with a strong sense of purpose. “There’s a deep commitment to diversity and including and telling American overlooked stories, which is fundamental to building a true national identity. I’m looking for stories of Black resilience, resistance and activism.”
Founded in November 2017, the AACHAF is a $25 million campaign designed to “preserve cultural places and historic buildings that showcase the richness of African American life, history and architecture,” says Leggs. When he started, of the nearly 100,000 places in the National Register of Historic Places, just 2 percent spoke to Black accomplishments. In the past three years, his team been busy, investing in the restoration of a whopping 150 historic sites.
These sites tell exciting stories on everything from sports to science, business to politics. There’s the A.G. Gaston Motel, a hotel in Birmingham Alabama that was an oasis for Black travelers including Martin Luther King during segregation. Boxing fans will be happy to note they preserved Joe Frazier’s Gym in Philadelphia, while jazz lovers may want to explore Nina Simone’s childhood home in Tryon, North Carolina.
The fund started with a project to protect the Kentucky Rosenwald Schools. Starting in 1917, Booker T. Washington and Jewish philanthropist Julius Rosenwald opened 5,000 schools across the South to educate Black children. “This Rosenwald school stood as the physical manifestation of Booker T. Washington’s idea of uplifting Black Americans,” Leggs says. “That was the moment I began to understand this work is bigger than helping to preserve my family connection to my professional interest. There was power in places.”
By their very existence, these places have quiet power to refute America’s persistent notion of white supremacy, and the narrative that accompanies it. It’s the idea that Black people are inferior and need white assistance and oversight to survive or excel. Inferior people don’t deserve good housing or first-rate schools. It’s the same idea that underpinned post-Emancipation schemes to disenfranchise Black people with poll taxes, guessing games and literacy tests. And it persists, in 2021.
If these buildings that echo with Black excellence were razed or forgotten, it’s too easy to shape a Black story around enslavement, poverty and mass incarceration with a sprinkling of exceptionalism a la Oprah, LeBron James and Beyoncé.
But places like a simple blue-and-white wood frame home in Durham, North Carolina expose the fallacy of that view. It’s the childhood home of Pauli Murray, a modern proto-feminist, civil rights attorney and scholar. “‘She should be revered as an icon in American history and so many Americans don’t even know her name” Leggs says.
Merry coined the term “Jane Crow” to characterize the “twin immoralities of race and sex discrimination” that beset Black women. This was in 1965; today we know this as intersectionality. Thurgood Marshall called her book on all the discriminatory laws around the US “the Bible of civil rights litigators.” Murray’s childhood home was built in 1898 by her grandfather Robert Fitzgerald, who fought for the Union in the Civil War.
Or consider the Wilfandel Club, a glimpse at Los Angeles’s thriving Black middle class after World War II. In 1945, entrepreneur Fannie Williams, civic leader Della Williams and 50 friends created a philanthropic and social club (think: The Wing of its time). They purchased an Italian Renaissance Revival home in the West Adams District once owned by a founder of Beverly Hills, and turned it into a clubhouse. The Wilfandel persists as a multiracial organization that reflects the changing demographics of Los Angeles.
The AACHAF has also granted $150,000 to leaders of the Vernon Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Tulsa to restore the church's stained glass windows. It’s one of the only buildings still standing after the 1921 racial massacre in Tulsa's Greenwood District. Leggs encourages people to broaden their vacations to include Black historic sites, such as the 16th Street Baptist Church, where four little girls were murdered in a 1963 bombing in Birmingham, the Rhode Island colonial cemetery called God’s Little Acre filled with African carvings and headstones, Louis Armstrong’s home and gardens in Queens, NY, or Villa Lewaro, the grand estate of Madam CJ Walker, America’s first female self-made millionaire, in Irvington, NY.
The more people know about these places, he reasons, the better they understand Black people today. While preservation focuses on the past, Leggs says the goal is inspiring future generations. Who knows what learning about Black entrepreneurship seen in Greenwood District, or self actualization demonstrated at Fort Monroe in Virginia might spark?
The Virginia site is where the first ships carrying enslaved Africans arrived in the US in 1619. Nearly 250 years later, in an act of historical symmetry, three Black men named Townsend, Mallory, and Baker self emancipated during the Civil War and presented themselves to the Union Army. General Benjamin Butler declared the men “contraband of war” and gave them safe haven. Their agency inspired 500,000 others to do the same. President Obama designated the fort a National Historic site, and now it’s a library and education center.
“Even enslaved people took bold action,” Leggs says. “We cannot just tell the painful part of our story about erasure. We are looking to tell the full Black experience and all the complexity, tragedy, and beauty that is waiting in this legacy.”
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