Q&A with state historic preservation coordinator Jeanne Cyriaque

As African American Programs Coordinator for the State of Georgia Historic Preservation Division, Jeanne Cyriaque spends her days (and travels about 7,500 miles a year) researching, chronicling, writing about and helping to find funding for historic sites of black history in the state.

We asked Cyriaque about her work and the work of others in attempting to get a fuller accounting of black history in Georgia and preserve its landmarks.

Q: What efforts are there now to establish a Civil Rights trail?

A: Congressman John Lewis introduced legislation that will fund a feasibility study to establish a national Civil Rights Trail. The bill passed the House and was introduced into the Senate. So far, there has been one committee hearing and it is likely that the feasibility study will be included in an omnibus bill. The feasibility study will produce the necessary documentation for Congress to consider the trail as a potential National Heritage Area.

Q: If you had to make a list of the top five moments in Georgia’s black history that most need to be preserved, what are they?

A: In no particular order, they are: January 12, 1865, when Sherman's March to the Sea ended in Savannah and he met with 20 black ministers and community leaders. The result of this meeting was Field Order No. 15 that set aside lands for the freed people, or what is popularly known as "forty acres and a mule," in the sea islands and coastal regions, including Georgia; 1868, when 30 African-American elected officials were expelled from the Georgia legislature; 1906, the Atlanta Race Riot; March 18, 1937, when the Eleanor Roosevelt Rosenwald School was dedicated in Warm Springs, Ga; the 1960s, when the SCLC, led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., led several campaigns culminating in the 1965 Civil Rights Act.

Q: What’s your most surprising discovery?

A: My most surprising discovery is that in any town in Georgia that had a significant African-American population, there still remains some building or a contribution to that town that represents an African-American story that needs to be told.

Q: What of the argument that all history is history, inclusive, and it shouldn’t be separated out into black and white?

A: Unfortunately, until the 20th century, historiography focused more on white history and if topics such as slavery and African-Americans were covered at all, it was to justify enslavement or promote racist Jim Crow practices and segregation. More recently, historians and the National Park Service have made concerted efforts to recognize all ethnic groups and their contributions to our nation in National Parks and National Heritage Areas.