Historic Sites and Black Self-Worth

African-American Experience Fund director on the importance of learning the whole American story.

Boston's Robert Gould Shaw Memorial (Courtesy of Lydia Sermons)
Boston's Robert Gould Shaw Memorial (Courtesy of Lydia Sermons)

LS: By and large, kids are not taught African-American history. In fact, very little history is told in schools. As a result, since past generations were not formally taught African-American history, they don’t know it and can’t tell it in accurate and compelling ways to their own children. The generation born during the civil rights era — my generation — lived some of that history. But the generations following us are very disconnected.

TR: As a result of that disconnection, do you find it difficult to drum up interest in historic African-American sites? And did you see any renewed interest in black history when President Obama became the first African-American president?

LS: I have found that it’s not a tough sell, actually. When you help people understand that our shared heritage is in jeopardy of being lost because of a lack of understanding of that history – including oral history, photographs and historic places that played a significant role in who we are as a nation — people understand that.

I do believe that the election of President Obama created a heightened self-esteem among African Americans and heightened our sense of what is possible. In all of that positive energy, there has been a resurgence of pride and self-worth, and that can lead to people wanting to understand more about who they are, what their history is and what they can become.

TR: What’s one of your most popular sites, and what are a couple that you wish people would pay more attention to?

LS: I believe the most popular site is the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial. But one site that I think is very important for people to learn more about is the Maggie L. Walker [National Historic Site] in Richmond, Va. She was the first African-American female to found a bank: the St. Luke Penny Saving Bank. And this was in 1903! It later merged with two others and stayed open until 2011. She helped establish an entire community called Jackson Ward in Richmond. It was one of the most successful African-American communities in the country.

Another is the Boston African American National Historic Site. There’s a monument that’s right across from the Statehouse in Boston to the first African-American regiment to fight in the Civil War. Their 50th anniversary is being celebrated next year. There’s a whole African-American Heritage Trail that’s part of the Underground Railroad network to freedom that leads to the African Meeting House in Boston.

In New York, there’s the African Burial Ground National Monument, right in Manhattan. In New Orleans, there’s the New Orleans Jazz National Historic Park. We have sites out west, too. Stop in Diamond, Mo., at the George Washington Carver National Monument. These are places people don’t necessarily think of.

Jenée Desmond-Harris is The Root’s staff writer. Follow her on Twitter.