It didn't take an action by state government to initiate an interest in Missouri's rich black heritage. Shortly after World War II, black communities began taking an appreciative look at their histories. This new appreciation came at a time when improved economic conditions, a burgeoning sense of black pride and a general rise in cultural awareness presented both opportunity and motivation for the black community to study and preserve its own heritage.
In rural neighborhoods, small towns and inner-city communities in Missouri and across the United States, blacks began to discover the cultural, educational, commercial and civic roles played by their parents and grandparents. This new awareness was often prompted by naturally-evolving events such as the 100th anniversary of a black church, the issuance of a major court decision or even a community tragedy involving black citizens. As religious congregations, for example, prepared to celebrate a special milestone, church records were explored more thoroughly. The original goals were to gather information and statistics that could be used at celebrations or in the writing of a church history. These searches often led to further exploration into cemeteries, courthouses, family letters, diaries and local newspaper files.
This search to uncover and preserve the contributions made by blacks was energized and made easier by the passage of the National Historic Preservation Act Amendments of l 992. From the black perspective, one of the most important parts of the act was that it relaxed some of the restrictions against the use of federal grants to assist in the preservation of religious properties listed in the National Register as long as the aid was secular and did not promote religion.
This relaxing of restrictions was important because the role of the black church cannot be understated. Often the only public building in which everyone could come together, the church house was the center of community life in many black neighborhoods and towns. It provided opportunities for blacks to develop leadership qualities, hone business skills, gain oratory experiences and find moral and spiritual comfort.
Missouri moved quickly -- primarily through the efforts of the Historic Preservation Program--to help in preserving the state's black history, especially the preservation of the black community's built environment. The HPP was aided by private groups, religious congregations, interested individuals and fraternal organizations in both the black and white communities. Historic preservation efforts were also bolstered by the popularity of collecting black memorabilia, the efforts to restore black neighborhoods, the widespread promotion of black history, the revival of traditional black music such as ragtime and jazz and the overall interest in the pop culture of things such as the Negro Baseball League.
With support funneled into the state through the HPP, the number of black-related Missouri sites in the National Register of Historic Places began to grow. Since 1990, numerous new African American listings have been placed in the register. These include a community center, several churches, several schools, a house, a large residential district and the 18th and Vine Historic District in Kansas City. In addition, several grants were given for black-related historical and archaeological studies and for restoration projects. (See The First Free Will Baptist Church...Born Again and Faith and Money: the Pennytown Project.)
One unique project involves an archaeological survey at the Kansas City International Airport. This survey centers, in part, around a black slave who lived on a plantation on what is now airport land. During the 1 860s, the slave escaped to Kansas but returned to Missouri as a Union soldier to fight in the Civil War. Ironically, the survey, funded by a grant from the HPP, is being done by an archaeologist who is a descendant of the slave in question. (See Slave Memories Inspire Project.)
The never-ending challenge of historic preservation is filled with ironies and almost-daily revelations. And that challenge now has strong and growing roots in black communities as people there look backward in search of a better tomorrow.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Kay Hively is a free-lance writer and a former member of the Missouri Advisory Council on Historic Preservation.