Dr. Carter G. Woodson, editor of the prestigious Journal of Negro History, referred to the historian as a “prophet looking backward.” In biblical lore, the prophets were sent forth to prepare the faithful for the Word of God. Like Woodson’s spin on these prophets of old, Louretta Wimberly and Sierra Neal are part of a new movement to record, reaffirm and preserve the words and works of Africans in America.
Malcolm X once described history as “a people’s memory,” noting that without this memory, one’s humanity was diminished. In a region where racial conflict has shaped the lives and livelihoods of its people, black and white alike, the historical record gives a curiously one-sided account of the contributions and travails of ex-slaves and their descendants. On this point, there are few people better positioned to know the facts and grasp their significance than Louretta Wimberly, a founding member of the Southeast Regional African American Preservation Alliance.
“There is so much African American history that has been destroyed or endangered,” Wimberly observes sadly. “We’ve lost whole neighborhoods, major landmarks, schools, churches—pieces of our lives sacrificed to economic development, freeways, integration, and other ‘improvements’.”
Wimberly is quick to add that the Alliance’s mission of encouraging the “preservation of African American history, sites and culture” is situated in a broader, even more ambitious effort to integrate the experience of African Americans into the national narrative. In this manner, the Alliance’s approach to historic preservation shares many qualities with social movements: clarity of purpose, a firm grounding in tradition and a passionate (almost religious) sense of social obligation.
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Founded in 1995 with the help of Sierra Neal of the National Trust for Historic Preservation Southern Office, the all-volunteer Alliance has no paid staff of its own and members are dispersed throughout the Southeast. From a core group of five statewide organizations, the Alliance has doubled in size with members in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North and South Carolina, Tennessee, and the District of Columbia. The Alliance has established strong connections with emerging statewide preservation networks, offering newcomers a range of services consisting of collaboration, education and communication. In its organizing practice, members of the Alliance borrowed the “each-one-teach-one” approach pioneered by civil rights activists—Alabama preservationists provided technical assistance and encouragement to the Georgia group, which in turn aided South Carolina, and so on. “The reason this group works so well,” Neal explains, “is that everyone has their name by a task, and people are pretty good about doing what they sign up to do.”
The Alliance has also benefited from its collaboration with the southern office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which was instrumental in helping focus national attention on the plight of the nation’s historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) “being threatened by neglect, deterioration, lack of maintenance and insufficient funds.” In fact, the addition of these institutions to the Trust’s annual list of “America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places” supported the Congressional Black Caucus’s effort to raise $755 million in restoration funding.
For Wimberly and her colleagues, the history (and future) of African Americans in the region since slavery unfolds with the development of the HBCUs. The fact that graduates of these schools, the children of former slaves and sharecroppers, became the teachers, preachers and leaders of subsequent generations is not lost on Alliance members. “We housed Selma University in our church until they were able to purchase land across town and build a campus,” she says proudly. “Our pastor was the first president of the college.”
“Sometimes, our children can’t see why they should be concerned about some old buildings,” Wimberly continues. “They don’t understand how the struggles and sacrifices of their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents opened up the opportunities they enjoy today.” She evokes the biblical analogy of Joshua’s twelve stones: “So the children will know how we came across the river Jordan… so they will know that they have a history, and a potential for greatness.”