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NPR Arts & Life

27 Grants Awarded To African American History Sites; Funder Aims To 'Scale Up'

In the early 1900s, educator Booker T. Washington and Sears Roebuck president Julius Rosenwald built schools across the South for African American students. May's Lick Rosenwald School, in Maysville, Ky., was built in 1921, and it has received one of 27 preservation grants from the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund.
In the early 1900s, educator Booker T. Washington and Sears Roebuck president Julius Rosenwald built schools across the South for African American students. May's Lick Rosenwald School, in Maysville, Ky., was built in 1921, and it has received one of 27 preservation grants from the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund.

In 1956, actor, singer and activist Paul Robeson said, "My father was a slave, and my people died to build this country and I am going to stay here and have a part of it just like you." Now, Robeson's home — the in Philadelphia — will receive a grant to help immortalize its part in the nation's story.

The Robeson house is one of 27 sites and organizations around the country receiving the award, announced Thursday by the National Historic Trust's African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund.

Toward the end of his life, performer Paul Robeson lived in his sister's home at 4951 Walnut Street in Philadelphia.
Purnell T. Cropper / African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund
Toward the end of his life, performer Paul Robeson lived in his sister's home at 4951 Walnut Street in Philadelphia.

Amid the heated controversies around monuments that celebrate America's racist past, the Action Fund will help preserve sites and spaces that tell often overlooked stories that speak to American history "through the lens of Black humanity and identity," says executive director Brent Leggs.

"We created the Action Fund as a social movement to help empower communities," Leggs explains, but also to "showcase the contributions of African Americans to our nation's history."

Note: Several of the funders of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund are also NPR supporters, including Ford Foundation, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

The Historic Vernon AME Church in Tulsa, Okla., was founded in 1905.
Robert Turner / African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund
The Historic Vernon AME Church in Tulsa, Okla., was founded in 1905.

The more than two dozen recipients of the award include:

  • , one of the few buildings to survive the 1921 Greenwood Massacre in the prosperous African American community known as Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Okla.
  • in Hilton Head, S.C., the first self-governed town of formerly enslaved people in the United States
  • The Maxville Interpretative Heritage Center, which tells the story of Black loggers from the south recruited to work in this Oregon logging town
  • The Chicago home of blues singer Muddy Waters
  • The Baltimore home of poet Lucille Clifton
  • The grants, ranging from $50,000 to $150,000, will support a variety of preservation needs. In addition to restoration and rehabilitation, some grants will go toward hiring new staff and sponsoring conferences and workshops.

    In New Orleans, will use its grant for projects that will interpret the experiences of the three little girls, including Tate, who integrated McDonogh #19, an elementary school in the Lower Ninth Ward in 1960. While African Americans cheered the first graders as they walked into the school escorted by their parents and federal marshals, white families removed their students from the school.

    The McDonogh #19 Public School in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward was closed in 2004 and damaged from Hurricane Katrina. It is vacant today.
    Leona Tate Foundation for Change / African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund
    The McDonogh #19 Public School in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward was closed in 2004 and damaged from Hurricane Katrina. It is vacant today.

    The Leona Tate Foundation will explore what happened to the girls "as they waited outside the Principal's Office all day while the rest of the students were removed," according to the Action Fund. The foundation also hopes to turn the building into "a space of reconciliation and healing."

    Grants for this year's Action Fund totaled $1.6 million. Brent Leggs acknowledges that, when you're talking about often costly historic preservation projects, that's not much. He hopes Americans will be curious to learn the stories of these historic sites, see them as part of our collective history, and be inspired to donate to the Fund "so we can scale up our impact" in the future.

    Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Muddy Waters' home at 4339 S. Lake Park Ave in Chicago.
    Klein and Hofflman / African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund
    Muddy Waters' home at 4339 S. Lake Park Ave in Chicago.