February is national African American history month. All over the country, communities are discovering, celebrating, and acknowledging the places that tell the stories of African American history and experience. This is the perfect time for us to talk about one of our newest initiatives to study African American history in Pennsylvania.
Last year, the National Park Service (NPS) awarded a $30,000 grant to the PA SHPO to study African American history and historic places in Pennsylvania. This grant program supports the survey, inventory, and designation of historic properties that are associated with communities currently underrepresented in the National Register of Historic Places and among National Historic Landmarks.
Our project is a statewide study of African American history in rural and suburban Pennsylvania related to religious, educational, and benevolent institutions in those African American communities to help identify and nominate properties to the National Register. This project will emphasize important themes from Pennsylvania’s storied African American past, while attempting to bring a new perspective to the study of African American history as its told through buildings, sites, and communities.
The story of African Americans in Pennsylvania is both rich and deep, yet there is little information about the built environment that reflects this powerful historical story. To date, there have been no statewide studies of the built environment related to African American history in Pennsylvania. While sporadic local and regional studies exist, there has been no concerted effort to study and understand this history at the statewide level and share it with Pennsylvania’s broad audiences.
African American resources in Pennsylvania are greatly underrepresented in National Register of Historic Places listings, by state historical markers, and in the Cultural Resources GIS database (CRGIS) of identified historic properties maintained by the PA SHPO. For example:
- Of the approximately 136,000 historic properties inventoried in CRGIS, only 168 (0.12%) are associated with African American history and more than half of those are located in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia metropolitan areas.
- Of the approximately 3,700 National Register listings for the Commonwealth, only 33 (0.9%) are identified for their association of “Ethnic History – African American.”
This project will focus on the rural, small town, and suburban areas of Pennsylvania because:
- African American history and the associated historic built environment is better represented and preserved in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with little or no recognition elsewhere in Pennsylvania beyond the Underground Railroad
- The smaller numbers of residents and the limited financial resources of rural and suburban Pennsylvania’s African American communities meant that the cultural resources associated with those communities reflected styles and forms that were often distinct from those found in urban settings with larger concentrations of African American residents.
- The African American communities in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh have been studied, with some of those studies resulting in historic contexts.
In 2008, PHMC’s Bureau for Historic Preservation (now the PA SHPO) and the African American Museum in Philadelphia (AAMP) completed a broad, multi-year project, funded by a Preserve America grant, to document African American history in Pennsylvania and how that history is reflected in the places, buildings, communities, and landscapes across the commonwealth.
Called “Black History in PA: Communities in Common,” this included:
- a reconnaissance-level survey of nine rural and suburban Pennsylvania communities that identified the patterns and characteristics of historic resources associated with African American history in different areas of Pennsylvania, and
- a body of research that synthesized the major themes and events in the experiences of African Americans in rural and suburban Pennsylvania between 1644 and 1965.
The survey findings and the extensive research are being used as the foundation for the current project.
The historic context can be used for a variety of purposes.
Primarily it is intended to support the evaluation of properties for National Register eligibility, whether for a nomination or state or federal compliance review. Not only will it allow for a consistent assessment of historic properties, but it will also be relevant to other activities that seek to identify and celebrate African American history—through social programs, local history events, state historic markers, heritage tourism, and other activities.
The education and outreach component of this project will make this information available to professionals and the public and illustrate how the historic context can be used to recognize historic resources associated with African American history throughout the Commonwealth. We have placed emphasis on awareness and continued communication throughout the life of the project.
Stay tuned to our blog for future updates and information about this project!