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African American Cultural Heritage Fund Awards Grants To Preserve Black History

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Africatown, Ala., was founded by passengers of the last known slave ship to reach the U.S. A Black church in Oklahoma survived the Tulsa race massacre of 1921. And the city of Minneapolis started a worldwide reckoning on racism with protests against the police killing of George Floyd. These are just three of the 27 places and organizations that were awarded grants to preserve Black history in the U.S., grants that were just announced today.

Brent Leggs is the executive director of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, which gave out these grants. He joins us now.

Congratulations on this launch.

BRENT LEGGS: Thank you. It's an exciting day.

CHANG: And we should note before we get started that several foundations that supply the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund are also NPR supporters. But I understand that your fund is spending $1.6 million on these grants this year. What do you hope this money will be used for?

LEGGS: These funds will be used to help preserve and interpret the stories that are imbued in 27 places of exceptional significance in American history, sites of resilience activism and achievement that tells an often overlooked story about American history.

CHANG: I know that something that you've written about is the connection between architecture and racial justice, which may not seem immediately obvious to some people. Explain the connection that you see there.

LEGGS: The preservation movement traditionally has preserved places associated to a privileged few, but through the Action Fund and contemporary preservation, we are preserving social history. Sometimes these vernacular structures - so it's the places that were built by the hands of Black communities all across the country like the Rosenwald schools across the South, this massive school building program that was envisioned by Booker T. Washington, funded by philanthropist Julius Rosenwald. And one of our grantees this year is the Mays Lick Rosenwald school in Kentucky.

CHANG: Yeah. Tell me about that school.

LEGGS: It's brick. It's in a rural part of Kentucky like many of the Rosenwald schools that were constructed. And the city has applied and received a capital grant to help them stabilize that historic building, and they have plans to open it up as a public space for their community.

CHANG: You know, today all across the country, people are trying to figure out what to do with Confederate history sites and monuments to slave owners. People are asking, what should we remember instead of these monuments? Is this grant program your answer to that question?

LEGGS: It is. We have to have a national conversation about the future of Confederate memorials and statues, and it's clear that public consensus is moving towards removal. I've been playing around in my head with this idea for those that should be removed that we put them all in some shared space; that we never invest any future money in their preservation and maintenance and that, as they decay back to the earth, that we are able to measure our social progress, race relations over time. And I would love to see African American artists and other artists from diverse communities working with historians and the humanities and preservationists to fill gaps in our American narrative and to create a landscape that is reflective of all of our citizens, including the African American story.

CHANG: That sounds beautiful. Brent Leggs is with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, where he directs the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund.

Thank you very, very much.

LEGGS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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