By Rosetta Miller-Perry
Publisher, The Tennessee Tribune
Despite all the impressive sounding rhetoric that you hear during Black History Month and some of the recent markers and streets getting new names, African American accomplishments and landmarks are not given the exposure and attention they deserve. There are some 95,000 entries across the country that carry this designation from the National Register of Historic Places as “sites deemed worthy of preservation by the federal government.”
But as revealed in a recent issue of the New Yorker, Black landmarks have been horribly ignored in the National Register process. The major mission of historic preservation in far too many instances has been preserving and celebrating something that doesn’t deserve being honored, at least not in a manner of celebration. As writer Casey Cep documented, the federal government first invested in historic preservation to preserve Confederate battlefields, cemeteries, and burial sites after the Civil War.
In 1966, Lyndon B. Johnson signed the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), establishing the National Register of Historic Places and providing federal funding for the National Trust. “[B]ecause many biases were written into the criteria that determine how sites are selected,” Cep wrote. “the law has largely failed to protect Black historic sites.”
For example, one criteria for preservation is architectural significance, which excluded buildings like slave cabins and tenement houses and left them to decay beyond saving. Without the protections afforded by historic designation, some historically Black neighborhoods were actively destroyed: deliberately burned in the post-Reconstruction era of racial terror or displaced by highway projects, gentrification, and urban renewal in more recent decades.
The denial of designations for Black historic places has gone hand in hand with the absence of African Americans from the institutions that decide what history is preserved. The NHPA has generated an estimated two million jobs, but Cep reports that less than 6 percent of the National Park Service’s 20,000 employees are Black, and African Americans comprise less than 4 percent of academic archeologists, 5 percent of licensed architects and engineers, and less than 1 percent of professional preservationists.
However, Nashville has an opportunity to do something about the historic denial of status to Black landmarks. Unfortunately there are some in our community who place personal profit ahead of cultural and community advancement.
I’m talking about the historic Morris building, which is actually part of that tiny 2 percent of Black landmark buildings listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The building, located at 330 Dr. MLK Jr. Blvd, was built in the 1920s by the Black architectural firm McKissack and McKissack. It is illustrative of Moses’ work rather than his brother Calvin.
It was built by the National Baptist Convention U.S.A. for the Sunday School Publishing Board, serving the world’s largest Black religious denomination. It was named for Rev. E.C. Morris, president of the National Baptist Convention. A building with this amount of history and tradition should not only always be a part of Nashville’s Black community; it should be utilized in a way that it has relevance and importance moving forward.
Sadly, it seems that now a group of ministers wants to sell the building instead of converting it into what it really should be, Nashville’s Civil Rights Museum. It’s a disgrace that a city with the history of activism and involvement in the Civil Rights Movement as Nashville has does not have a structure dedicated to commemorating the people and events from that time. Certainly naming streets after Civil Rights figures is wonderful but it doesn’t replace the importance or the impact of a dedicated Civil Rights Museum.
That Memphis has a Civil Rights museum and Nashville doesn’t should be something that bothers anyone who cares about properly celebrating and honoring Black culture, heroes and achievements.
The Tribune is calling for everyone who wants to see this building remain in our community’s hands and turned into something that symbolizes and recognizes both its past history and that of Nashville’s Black heroes generally to let those who would sell it know that this is something that should NOT HAPPEN.
In fact, the folks who are so anxious to unload another community landmark should step forward and let everyone know why they want to do this, and why they haven’t even entertained the idea of converting it into a Civil Rights Museum, or just preserving it and letting it remain a Black community landmark.
Sadly, there have been and always will be profiteers in our community, those who put their primary emphasis on dollars going into their pockets rather than something benefiting the entire community.
The Tribune says let’s not sit back and let it happen this time. Save the Morris Building and either make it a Civil Rights museum, or preserve it for future generations to understand and acknowledge why it was built and what it means to the Black community, in the past, today and for the future.