Curating and Preserving Black History in Local Communities

We were thrilled when BAFF grantee and Red Olive client i, too arts collective received a grant from The National Trust for Historic Preservation’s African-American Cultural Heritage Action Fund earlier this month. Red Olive is a named consultant for this project, and we look forward to digging in and doing the work to save our Black places. 

This grant recognizes and supports a historic landmark building with ties to the Black community. When the privately-owned Langston Hughes House was listed for sale in 2016, members of Harlem’s community, led by YA author Renée Watson, fought for the preservation of Hughes’ former home. Together, they reimagined what might have become a condo and coffee shop as an arts and culture hub for underrepresented Harlem residents and visitors from all over the world. Since then, i, too arts collective has worked to promote Hughes’ cultural legacy through their programming. 

A few weeks ago, DéLana and I attended a panel discussion in honor of another act of Black cultural preservation: the second edition release of A True Likeness: the Black South of Richard Samuel Roberts, 1920-1936 at the Columbia Museum of Art. 

Roberts was a massively talented Black photographer whose body of work— thousands of photographs— includes stunning portraits of Black people from every walk of life, a visual archive of Black life in Columbia, South Carolina in the early 1900s.  I appreciated hearing from Professor Bobby Donaldson, head of the Center for Civil Rights History and Research, who has worked throughout his career to collect and safeguard Black, Southern stories. He ascribed his interest in being a historian, in part, to watching his aunt (who the family called Aunt Baby) and grandfather flip slowly through the pages of the first edition of A True Likeness, wondering at the images neither the book editors nor they could place. I learned from Thomas L. Johnson, one of the book’s editors, about the process of putting together the book, how Black community members met regularly with archivists to view and contextualize many of the book’s images, putting names, occupations, and stories to faces. “That’s my uncle,” one might say, adding a name and a little life history to the written archive. “She was my teacher in grade school.”

Though I’m thankful that Roberts’ photography is documented and preserved for generations to come, I can’t help but anger at the disparity in resources between the community members who labor to preserve history in their minds and hearts and homes, and the institutions that have access to archival tools, publishing machinery, large event spaces, etc. 

In light of this past and present inequity in access to institutionalized resources, the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s grant announcement is all the more important.  We should celebrate the redistribution of resources from large institutions to smaller-scale Black cultural conservation projects. So, here’s to i, too arts collective; the preservation work they’ve done and will continue to do. Here’s to Red Olive and BAFF’s continued partnerships with historic Black spaces. Here’s to people coming together in the interest of preserving and elevating Black art, culture, history, and places. Onward!

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