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A Black church in Alabama and 32 other sites get a historic preservation lifeline

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

The activists met at the Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Selma, Ala. They planned to march 54 miles from Selma to the state capital of Montgomery in a voting rights demonstration. They did not even leave the city before they were brutally beaten by police with TV cameras rolling, a day known as Bloody Sunday and one that shook the federal government's conscience to pass the Voting Rights Act later that year, 1965.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARTIN LUTHER KING JR: We're going to stand up amid anything that they can muster up, letting the world know that we are determined to be free.

SUMMERS: The day after that violence, Martin Luther King Jr. arrived in Selma and spoke at Brown Chapel AME Church, which is still an active church today, though the actual building is not currently open.

JUANDA MAXWELL: Because of the damage from termites and water, the church has extensive damage, and it is actually closed.

SUMMERS: That's Juanda Maxwell. She's the project director at Brown Chapel. Today, her church becomes one of 33 places across the United States being recognized with historic preservation grants. They total $3 million from the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund. They include places like the artist Faith Ringgold's studio and the home of Emmett Till's family. And we should note that some of the foundations that support this fund also support NPR.

Earlier today, we spoke with Juanda Maxwell, along with the executive director of the fund, Brent Leggs.

BRENT LEGGS: For the past five years, we've worked in partnership with communities nationwide to advance the broader preservation movement towards a more diverse and equitable representation of American history. We're thrilled to invest $150,000 in the future preservation of historic Brown Chapel in Selma to ensure that this sacred space of that community, and an iconic site in civil rights, is a resource.

MAXWELL: And because of the help that we have gotten - it's only, you know, been a year since we broke ground - we are almost at $2 million that we've raised. And we have been able to complete some of the restoration and repairs.

SUMMERS: Brent, the African American Cultural Heritage Fund has a wide range of grantees. Can you tell us a little bit about some of the other places that were chosen in this round and the ways in which you were hoping to help them and their curators preserve and elevate these important sites in history?

LEGGS: Our 2022 Action Fund grant list showcases the beauty and complexity of Black history and culture in America. The historic Bluebird Inn in Detroit - that was a hub of social and music life in that important city, or like the home and studio of the legendary artist Faith Ringgold in New Jersey. And what's unique about this project is that Ms. Ringgold is living, and to have a living artist who stewards an organization and is being proactive and planning for the perpetual stewardship of her home and studio is innovation in historic preservation.

SUMMERS: Juanda, your church has been a gathering place for Black people in Selma for decades and decades, long before John Lewis came there in '65. Tell us a story we might not have heard before.

MAXWELL: Well, Brown Chapel is circa 1908, and it was designed by a Black architect named A.J. Farley. And he was right out of slavery. And he designed and built this beautiful, Romanesque, revival-style edifice in 1908.

LEGGS: And, Juanda, I'm glad that you shared the story of this Black builder and designer of historic Brown Chapel. And on this year's list, we also have another important Black church that's in Los Angeles, known as Second Street Baptist Church of Los Angeles. And that building was designed by pioneering Black architect Paul Williams. And what's beautiful about these two historic sites - they express Black culture, architectural heritage and legacy.

MAXWELL: Absolutely. And that's so important because it reflects the history of the talent that was there among Black people even when we weren't necessarily offered the opportunity to learn our craft through formal education. But these were people who did this extraordinary work.

SUMMERS: I want to raise this question to each of you - why do you feel it is important to preserve and restore historical sites that speak to the Black experience in history, even when the history that they are centered on isn't necessarily uplifting and, at times, some of it is, frankly, quite painful?

MAXWELL: If you don't tell your history yourself, it will be lost. And so this is not only a pilgrimage for people all over the world, but it's a way to learn about the legacy and the contributions of African American people and how they made this country, this great experience and experiment, greater and better for all citizens. So history has to be taught, and if it's not going to be taught to young people in the schools the way it should be taught, then who will do it if we won't?

LEGGS: As preservationists, we preserve stories of a painful past as well as stories about prosperity within the Black community. And we are intentional about balancing public memory because the Black experience is more than racial violence and injustice.

MAXWELL: Right.

LEGGS: A family in Mississippi, the Williams family, that is working to preserve the Dumas pharmacy building in Natchez, Miss - this place tells the story of two Black - a doctor and a dentist, early entrepreneurs helping to build a thriving Black commercial district in that city in Mississippi. Their story matters. Their contribution matters. And we are delighted to invest funding for capital and improvements of this vacant building.

MAXWELL: And I know we have all heard that if the history is buried, then the tragedy repeats itself. I mean, you would be surprised at how easily history - important history - is lost when you don't have someone in those congregations searching and researching to tell the story, the legacy of it. So I'm just grateful.

SUMMERS: Brent Leggs is the executive director of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund. That is a program at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. And Juanda Maxwell is the project director at Brown Chapel AME Church. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.