Here at Keperling Preservation Services, we focus primarily on built history. But built history and places are relevant because of people. Examining architecture out of the human context lacks the same significance. People and their shared stories and history are the foundation upon which we build the house of preservation. We’re currently living through a pivotal moment in our shared history, and it’s necessary to address this as it is happening. Recent tragedies are shining a greater light on the legacy of racism and exclusion in our country, not to mention more exposure to targeted violence. It is necessary from a preservation standpoint to address the contributions of these typically-excluded, marginalized people to our nation. We also want to address how the field of preservation can continue to grow and diversify.
William C. Goodridge mural, York, PA. Image source: Anne Gray, Wikipedia’s Entry on William C. Goodridge
DANIELLE’S PERSONAL STORY:
I feel like the events of the past several weeks are creating change and elevating the systemic marginalization of groups of people to a higher level of consciousness in the whole of society. Many of the uncomfortable events in history are collectively forgotten by both the oppressors and the oppressed for different reasons (shame, fear of retaliation, pain and discomfort). I am in the process of reading Slavery in the North: Forgetting History and Recovering Memory by Marc Howard Ross. This is not so much a history book as an examination of the psychology of collective memory. Ross outlines that collective memories are hard to maintain – people die, move away, history documents what fits into the narrative of the day – but physical ties to places help to organize memory and can serve as a memory prompt. Preserving the places that are tied to uncomfortable history can help those stories remain in the collective memory. As Ross notes in the book:
“More inclusive narratives, rituals, and public landscapes can powerfully communicate shared connections and a common stake in society.”
Being a bi-racial woman in the twenty-first century, I am grateful I was born in this time and place. My history (enslavement of my mother’s family and my father’s family journeying West on the Oregon trail) combined tells the story of our country and helps me to feel that my ancestors helped to build this country. Having history and historical places acknowledge the contributions of the marginalized and enslaved in (literally and figuratively) building this country, we can help to connect ourselves to the greater history of the country and the realization that all of our history (as messy as it is) tells our story.
There is a shift in the interpretation of historical sites to tell the entire history of the people that lived in these historic places, from the famous people to the enslaved (and sometimes the indigenous people that were removed from the land). This shift allows for people to have their story told and validated in a way that is not done if it only perpetuates the feeling of disconnect from the greater society.
Danielle Keperling and her parents, Chuck and Lois Groshong, on Danielle’s wedding day.
A few years ago I was dreaming of moving to Williamsburg and selling apples out of a basket (life was a little crazy and I thought this would be a low-stress life in which I could dress up every day for work). When I was telling my mother, she looked at me and said, “You won’t sell apples out of a basket. They’ll put you to work in the big house.” Historically this would be true, but the thought had not occurred to me.
When I was in elementary school my Great Aunt Eunice (she was a private duty nurse) told me that when I am shopping, I need to make sure I don’t go back into the store with my bags and make sure I have my receipts with me. I did not realize until I was an adult that this was in case the store employees accused me of stealing – I thought this advice was something that everyone learned. When I hear stories of lessons told to young black men on how to interact with the police, I realize how many of the lessons we learn are based on the experiences of generations before us and how we have passed these survival skills forward.
WHAT CAN WE DO?
This is a hard question to answer. However, it’s necessary to try. Much of the inspiration for our suggested solutions below was drawn from The Inclusive Historian’s Handbook article on inclusivity in historic preservation, as well as other resources embedded throughout this post. If you feel moved to learn more about the contributions of all cultural and minority groups to our collective American history, or even feel compelled to contribute to efforts to support a more inclusive history, we’ve curated a few steps you can take:
What’s been done. To start, become aware of the current status of history and preservation. It’s generally agreed that two critical events – Ann Pamela Cunningham’s seminal initiative to restore and save Mt. Vernon, and the grassroots rallying following the destruction of New York City’s Penn Station – lit the fire for preservation in the United States. And, in 1966 With Heritage So Rich was published (the full digital version can be found here). It set the stage for the formal preservation processes we have in place today. It also acknowledged that more work needed to be done, and resulted in the formal enactment of the National Historic Preservation Act in 1966. While this was essential, there is still room for improvement and inclusion.
Over the last few years, the National Trust for Historic Preservation has made concerted efforts to address these gaps. They’ve transitioned to forward-focused annual conferences, increased discussion of inclusive preservation and people-centric work, and have held a forum on preserving difficult histories.
Take part in placekeeping. It is necessary to consider these questions. Who decides what should be preserved? And, what determines whether something is worthy of preservation? Many have suggested that we focus on “placekeeping” instead of “placemaking” as a way to negotiate between citizens and developers. This means preserving and saving the culture that exists to make a place unique, rather than eradicating the current cultural heritage to “better it” with something new. The idea came about largely due to the push for adaptive reuse and revitalization around the country, which sadly often results in significant gentrification. We can support this placekeeping process by buying from local businesses. We can also learn about the unique histories of our local neighborhoods and communities. Another enjoyable way to support a place might involve attending cultural or heritage festivals.
Visit and support. Simply visiting or donating to historic sites contributes to the cause inclusive history, particularly sites that focus on such history. Look for places and organizations that involve inclusive storytelling and value and share intangible heritage. In our region alone there are several places that fit the bill, but here is a list of just a few:
Read/educate yourself. It’s vital that we remember our past. We can educate ourselves by reading about local and national stories of underrepresented groups and forgotten events.
Share/be an activist. You can be an activist simply by sharing your knowledge with others. You can use your basic preservationist skill-set and take it a step further by focusing on inclusivity. You can use many of the above-embedded articles and resources from the National Trust for Historic Preservation as inspiration.
Engage youth. We have no hope of moving this process forward unless we include today’s youth. Involving a young person in your life in the quest to learn about and share an inclusive history is essential. Young folks can inherit our intangible heritage through stories and experiences, and they can also learn important skill-sets if they decide to become professionally involved in the field. The National Trust for Historic Preservation also shares ways to include youth.
Ultimately we agree with the statement of solidarity recently released by Lancaster History. The unrest and protests are logical consequences of systemic injustice. Although we support non-violent methods of action, we also feel it is imperative to remember why these sometimes violent methods are resorted to by people. We hope that you can use this knowledge and become a part of the necessary solution to stand in solidarity with those who need it most. You can start by using some of the suggestions provided in this post.
Further resources and steps: