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An Historic Gift for Black Preservation

Philanthropist MacKenzie Scott’s $20 million gift to the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund is one of the largest ever received by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

In the aftermath of the 2017 white power rally and fatal terror attack in Charlottesville, Virginia, the National Trust for Historic Preservation launched a campaign to create a more accurate accounting of the full diversity of preservation-worthy U.S. buildings and places. With $25 million in funding, this new African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund set out to identify and save scores of sites important to Black history and American culture.

This week, philanthropist MacKenzie Scott nearly doubled that fund. Included in the $2.7 billion in charitable giving that she announced on Tuesday was a $20 million gift to the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund. It’s the largest non-capital gift ever received by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and one of the largest donations in the history of the U.S. preservation movement.

Brent Leggs, the executive director of the Action Fund, described the gift as transformational. “It’s an affirmation that historic preservation contributes much to our society, and that it’s a pathway for equity,” he says.

Since its founding, the Action Fund has pledged to identify and preserve 150 places that are critical to African-American history but are sensitive or threatened. The fund has drawn leaders to steer this effort from across the arts, business, government and academic sectors, including filmmaker Ava DuVernay, Smithsonian Institution secretary Lonnie Bunch and South Carolina Representative Jim Clyburn.

This new focus for preservation is a long time coming. The preservation movement has always followed the social values of the day, which has generally meant sites associated with white men who held political or cultural power. Only recently has the field expanded to consider important cultural assets associated with Black history. Nina Simone’s childhood home in Tryon, North Carolina; Paterson, New Jersey’s art-deco Hinchcliffe Stadium (home to the New York Black Yankees of Negro League baseball); and the Pullman National Monument in Chicago are just a few examples.

“Our nation may be rich in diverse history, but it has often been poor in representation of that history and in funding its protection, conservation and recognition,” Leggs says. “We have an opportunity with the Action Fund to broaden the American story.”

Last year, the Action Fund awarded its largest gift yet ($150,000) to the Vernon AME Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the only Black-owned structure from the Black Wall Street-era that was still left standing after the Race Massacre in 1921. Members who survived the massacre and rebuilt the church inscribed their names in the stained-glass windows, which badly needed restoration work. Leggs says that Reverend Robert Turner was able to leverage the gift to garner $750,000 in donations.

The gift from MacKenzie Scott and her husband, Dan Jewett, will boost the Action Fund’s partnerships with organizations around the country to safeguard Black heritage, according to Leggs, and he hopes that the work that it facilitates will inspire other philanthropists to step up. The gift is also a validation of the diverse leadership assembled for the Action Fund, he adds: Historic preservation is changing, and practitioners must adapt too. For example, when the National Trust for Historic Preservation issued a June 2020 statement supporting the removal of Confederate monuments, some Trust members resisted the decision. “We stood strong in our commitment,” Leggs says.

He considers the work of restoring Black cultural sites to be in line with efforts to uproot the symbols of white supremacy and to recontextualize American history.

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