How Historical Housing Discrimination Impacts Black Historical Preservation Practices

Atlanta, Georgia: December 20, 2019: Martin Luther King, Jr., National Historic Site in the city of Atlanta. The historic site is administered by the National Park Service. (Michael Gordon/ Shutterstock)

Looking nationally at the American landscape, there are few places that present clear opportunities to talk about history. Legal protections that recognize or commemorate areas for historical purposes are limited, and much of this protection is tied to eligibility for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. The National Register aims to develop a complete and representative list of historic properties, but each building must pass an approval process in which its significance and integrity are assessed. Demonstrated ties to local or national trends of American history prove significance; integrity requires proof that the physical characteristics of the property remain unchanged in the present, maintaining a feeling of timelessness. Once added to the National Register, buildings are given access to regulatory protections and financial tools that can help a community preserve these ties to history into the future.

This may sound like a neutral process for assembling a visible, representative collection of places to convey the history of the country. The problem is that for many Americans who have been subjected to centuries of racial discrimination or structural marginalization, listing buildings on the National Register can be challenging because, no matter how significant, few relevant places have maintained their structural integrity. This is because discriminatory practices in the United States made it difficult to access architects, building materials, and the money and power necessary to maintain structures in their original historic condition. Today, only eight percent of National Register listings preserve the stories of marginalized communities. The national landscape’s overrepresentation of white histories is an issue that has concerned preservation professionals for decades, but the problem persists.

How can a complete record of the nation’s diverse cultural heritage of American history be told if most structures associated with the country’s four largest racial minority groups fail to qualify for the National Register?

In 2021, the National Park Service, which oversees the National Register program, released a theme study entitled Civil Rights in America: Racial Discrimination in HousingOnly a few dozen theme studies like this have been released, the earliest in 1959, on topics such as The Mining Frontier and Presidents of the United States. These studies are designed to encourage thematically related places to be nominated to the National Register. What makes the Racial Discrimination in Housing study unusual is the circular nature of its topic: this history directly acknowledges that discrimination created unequal access to buildings, so the physical objects that the National Register is designed to preserve do not exist in equal numbers for African American, Asian American, Latino American and American Indian communities.

Housing discrimination was a complex, intentional effort on the part of the U.S. government that impacted generations of people through the use of police color lines, racial covenants, mortgage lending regulations, municipal zoning, urban renewal, low-income housing programs, and threats of white violence. Detroit built a segregation wall, blocking off an African American residential neighborhood so that a proposed white subdivision could qualify for FHA financing. While the Racial Discrimination in Housing study acknowledges that U.S. policy choices “erase[d] communities not only from the physical landscape but also from historical memory,” the study nevertheless encourages preservation professionals to tell the story of this discrimination solely through the use of fully intact buildings—places that can easily pass the integrity test. These buildings may be historically important, but as David Lowenthal wrote in The Past is a Foreign Countrythe high visibility of such structures can cause people to overestimate the stability of the past. Housing discrimination is not a stable history, and overestimating its stability does not make sense.

The integrity requirement was originally introduced to the National Register for completely different reasons. In the 1930s and ‘40s, the concern was not timelessness but rather authenticity, a recurring problem at that time. From 1917 to 1956, for example, the Verendrye National Monument officially identified a North Dakota location as the site of a mid-eighteenth-century French expedition even though evidence existed that the route actually passed through South Dakota. Later, after the passage of the National Historic Preservation Act in 1966, integrity became a more flexible idea linked to significance: a rare enough building could deteriorate and still be added to the National Register. However, there are limits to these kinds of judgments, and buildings associated with marginalized histories suffer because of the ubiquity and severity of their material challenges.

So much imaginative space can open up if historically stable buildings are no longer the focus of preservation efforts. After the Berlin Wall came down, Germany experienced a flood of visitors because it offered people a chance to viscerally witness the disruptiveness of history for themselves. Crumbling buildings make traumas visible through the physical evidence of “weathering, demolition, neglect, bullet marks, bombings, fires and alterations,” incoherence that can be felt. Brokenness can run as a counter-narrative to challenge commonly accepted, dominant national discourses that emphasize the safety or inevitability of the present. Public spaces can be used to create counter-monuments, which self-consciously question their own legitimacy while working to “jar viewers from complacency and to challenge and denaturalize the viewers’ assumptions.” Confrontations with structures that sink into the ground over time or cause viewers to physically stumble over the absences of the Holocaust can encourage critical thinking about the past.

Instability, violence, and suffering are present in all countries’ national histories. The twentieth century’s wars remain an especially active part of living memory for Europeans, where cities were bombed into heaps of rubble, and people survived under extreme conditions. The violence and suffering of American history, on the other hand, have not primarily been experienced in white spaces, but rather in those of racially marginalized groups. Too many Americans have used this as justification for sidelining this history, rendering it invisible rather than taking responsibility for it. “What white Americans have never fully understood – but what the Negro can never forget – is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”

Those who support the National Register’s integrity requirement may worry that too many buildings would be listed if the requirement were loosened. But in cases where clear, targeted racial discrimination practices impacted specific buildings in ways that were clearly documented, then one could argue that the loss of integrity itself becomes historically significant. This proof of discrimination has been used to approve at least one local designation, the Kinney-Tabor House in Los Angeles, which was rejected for local listing in 1968 and then accepted in 2008. The building lost its historical integrity when it was relocated in 1925, but it was moved by necessity because it changed ownership and became subject to racial covenant restrictions.

Fostering critical thinking about national history is not just a valuable academic exercise; these are also moral choices. To make difficult histories visible is to designate and preserve spaces where witnessing can occur. In the book Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History, Dori Laub calls this a process of taking on co-ownership of events or traumas, where survivor and listener work together in a generative process to construct new forms of public, shared understanding. This is how community can be strengthened. There are times when history is too painful and telling stories can feel too risky; these are situations where a building can take the place of an individual survivor and make space for stories that would otherwise remain silenced. What better way to testify to the legacy of housing discrimination in the United States than by loosening the National Register’s integrity requirement so that buildings that retain visible signs of destruction can be preserved, able to viscerally bear witness to the destabilizing forces of history?

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Nan Wakefield

Nan Wakefield is a current historic preservation master’s student at the University of Kentucky. She is interested in memory studies, cultural geography, marginalized histories, World War II, and the Cold War. Her thesis examines the relationship between Cincinnati’s Berlin Wall commemoration practices and the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. She received her BA in philosophy from Swarthmore College.