Four Years Ago, Only 2% of Buildings on the National Register Spoke to African American History—Meet the Historian Changing ThatHistorians in the News
tags: historic preservation, African American history, National Register of Historic Places
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.
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