OPINION: In historical preservation, significance is in eyes of beholder

Views of Gaines Hall, a former girls’ dorm at Morris Brown College, shown on Tuesday, September 5, 2023. (Natrice Miller/ Natrice.miller@ajc.com)

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Views of Gaines Hall, a former girls’ dorm at Morris Brown College, shown on Tuesday, September 5, 2023. (Natrice Miller/ Natrice.miller@ajc.com)

The last time I visited the campus of Morris Brown College was in 2006. I was reporting a story on the historically Black college’s efforts to recover from years of financial mismanagement that had led to the school being stripped of its accreditation.

In August, after a 20-year battle, the school regained good standing. But, while the legacy of Morris Brown is being preserved in a new crop of students, part of the school’s history is still in jeopardy.

Some of the buildings that had been a part of the college since 1932, and part of Atlanta University before that, were sold when Morris Brown declared bankruptcy more than a decade ago. They have remained vacant and vulnerable for years, according to the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation’s 2022 list of Places in Peril.

Who will save these historic spaces? Who decides if they are worth saving? And why do our efforts at preservation always feel so reactionary rather than proactive?

Atlanta has a bad reputation when it comes to preserving its historic spaces, even if that reputation isn’t entirely warranted. When a structure has fallen into a dilapidated state, it seems the remedy most often suggested is to tear it down. While that often triggers a public outcry, it may be too little too late.

While I don’t know if anyone is planning to take a wrecking ball to the old Morris Brown buildings, I do believe the time to act is long before they are in peril.

In the past decade, grassroots advocacy has been drawing more attention to places crumbling under years of divestment and neglect.

Three women are fighting for the preservation of Buckhead’s Piney Grove Cemetery, which has been around since the 1800s. They formed a nonprofit early this year to restore the cemetery. Though it is now surrounded by apartments and townhomes, the cemetery is the burial site for more than 300 Black Atlantans.

Roughly two and a half hours south of Atlanta, a group secured funds to renovate what was once the Americus Colored Hospital and to turn it into a museum. Built in 1923, the Sumter County hospital was one of the few to employ Black doctors and serve Black patients before it closed in 1953. It then played many different roles in the community. In 2019, thanks to the Americas-Sumter County Movement Remembered Committee, the National Park Service awarded two $500,000 grants toward the project.

Preserving sites of cultural importance to minority groups has always been an uphill climb in America, even from the earliest moments in the mid-1700s, when pioneers during the expansion West saved indigenous structures even as they removed indigenous people from the region.

The focus of the pioneers’ preservation, even then, was architecture and its lessons, rather than culture.

And that’s the way it’s often gone. Preservation efforts at the federal and state levels focus mostly on historical sites with patriotic and architectural significance.

Residents of Collier Heights, a historically Black community in northwest Atlanta, gained National Register of Historic Places status for its wealth of ranch-style homes — not for its cultural significance as a neighborhood where civil rights activists such as Ralph David Abernathy lived.

We can learn a great deal about the past by looking at how people lived, the buildings where they learned, the hospitals where they were nursed, the cemeteries where they were laid to rest. Studying the past isn’t all about architecture, and it’s not only about sites where significant battles took place or where presidents lived.

“We can call it whatever we want to, but culture and identity are a component of historic preservation. That is why you are seeing more interest now in historic preservation in urban environments,” said David Mitchell, executive director of Atlanta Preservation Center. “We are going to get into stuff that isn’t traditional. If we are a city as dynamic as we would like to believe we are, then we should be able to do this with no problem.”

Often, the problem is, who is going to lead the conversation?

There are so many moving parts when it comes to historic preservation, and I’m awed by the communities and individuals that have mobilized and managed to save treasured spaces.

But let’s face it, money is always an issue.

We need more efforts to help people and communities connect with resources and strategies for preservation. And we need to be more open to what should be saved, especially in communities that were long left out of the conversation.

Read more on the Real Life blog (www.ajc.com/opinion/real-life-blog/) and find Nedra on Facebook (www.facebook.com/AJCRealLifeColumn) and Twitter (@nrhoneajc) or email her at nedra.rhone@ajc.com.

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