Fighting to Preserve Black History
Years after congressional appropriations were made and public awareness has faded, Black college officials still are struggling to restore historic properties
TALLADEGA, Ala. — Ask Talladega College President Dr. Marguerite Archie-Hudson about historic-building renovations needed on her campus set here amidst the hills and valleys of this suburban Southern town and she recites a litany: Swayne, Foster and Andrews halls. DeForest Chapel. The president’s house. The library.
Many of the Black college’s historic buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places, or are eligible for inclusion. Fifteen are 100 years old or close to that.
“We could use $25 million easily to restore and preserve these buildings,” she says.
And that’s just a small part of the bigger picture. A few years ago, the Congressional Black Caucus asked the General Accounting Office to estimate the cost of restoring and preserving historically significant properties on historically Black college and university campuses. The resulting 1998 survey estimated that $755 million would be required for 712 properties. About half the properties were already on the National Register, while almost a third had been named eligible by state historic preservation officers.
Many of the schools had funds set aside to restore the buildings, but their reserves — $60 million — amounted to only a tiny fraction of the estimate.
Despite the sizable cost projection, Congress was not moved to provide much funding. It rejected a bill, supported by the Black Caucus, that would have authorized the $755 million. But Congress has appropriated nearly $21 million of $29 million it approved in 1996 for historic preservation at HBCUs.
Now, four years later, many of the buildings that hold invaluable Black history within their crumbling and aged walls still have yet to be restored. Officials say it’s hard to raise the necessary money, and sometimes even more difficult to raise awareness of why efforts should be placed into restoring old buildings in the first place.
But, says Rep. James E. Clyburn, D-S.C., — often heralded as the biggest champion of historic building preservation on Black campuses — “many of the structures and sites on [HBCU] campuses are in jeopardy of being lost forever.”
Getting the Grants
There’s no denying the huge need for restoration of historic properties at HBCUs, but it’s unrealistic to expect a $700-million subsidy, says Cecil McKithan, chief of the National Register programs division with the National Park Service. “We’re blessed to receive the amount we have,” he says.
The 1996 Omnibus Parks Act was earmarked for about a dozen schools, many in districts of lawmakers who pushed through the authorization. Talladega won two grants totaling $1.36 million. Like all recipients, the school must match the dollars to receive them.
Institutions located within Clyburn’s district have benefited as well. Allen University in Columbia, for example, won almost $1 million in federal monies — which it had to match — to restore the 110-year-old Arnett Hall. Claflin College in Orangeburg, S.C., won $1,000,000 and has completed work on Minister’s Hall, which was closed after a fire. And Voorhees College in Denmark, S.C., received a $2,000,000 grant.
Elsewhere, renovation projects are under way at Fisk University in Nashville, Knoxville Business College in Knoxville, Tenn., and Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Not all of the funded work has begun, because some schools still are raising the matching dollars.
In addition to the 12 schools awarded money in the ’96 appropriation, there are 11 others with funds from earlier congressional appropriations; they have the help of the College Fund/UNCF in raising matching dollars.
A Parallel History
On many campuses, buildings most in need of repair are the original school facilities — and their history parallels that of African American higher education.
Archie-Hudson relates the history of two Talladega buildings: Swayne Hall and the library. Swayne Hall was built around 1852 as an academy for White males. The chief builder, William Savery, was a master carpenter and slave who led construction of the building noted for its two identical three-story circular staircases.
During the Civil War, Union soldiers used the hall as a prison. In 1867, Savery called upon missionaries and a local freedmen’s official to buy it. They did, and he founded Talladega.
Talladega’s library, named after Savery, went up in 1939. It was dedicated on the hundredth anniversary of the Amistad Revolt as a commemoration of the first civil rights case in the country, Archie-Hudson says. It includes a mural, painted by Hale Woodruff, depicting scenes of the on-board slave revolt, the subsequent trial and finally the victorious Mendians returning to Africa.
On many campuses, students and faculty constructed the original buildings. In 1900-01, Maj. Richard R. Wright, the first president of Georgia State Industrial in Savannah, built Hill Hall with five faculty members and eight students. Later to become Savannah State University, the school was Georgia’s first public Black college, says humanities professor and school historian Dr. Charles J. Elmore.
Wright designed a curriculum that borrowed from both Booker T. Washington and Dr. W.E.B. DuBois. Students spent the mornings in vocational classes such as sewing and blacksmithing, then dedicated their afternoons to languages, philosophy and other classical subjects. President William Howard Taft visited Hill Hall in 1912. During World War I, the hall was a training site for soldiers.
By 1996, the Greek revival building was deteriorating, and the school closed it. But last summer, with a $625,000 grant from the National Park Service and $395,000 from the Georgia Board of Regents, Savannah State officials launched a three-phase renovation plan.
Exterior repairs — a new roof, new windows and doors — already were complete and interior work was beginning when on May 8 the building caught fire. A welder’s sparks started the blaze. The workman thought he had completely doused the fire, but later it reignited, Elmore says. The new tin roof was so badly burned it had to be removed, and the third floor was ruined as well.
But Hill Hall still is structurally sound, and the university has declared renovations will proceed.
The commitment to Hill Hall is deeply felt, says spokeswoman Loretta Hayward. “I think through the years Hill Hall has become a landmark here on campus. It’s a symbol of strength, a symbol of aspiration, a symbol of perseverance, and a symbol of hope,” she says.
An Antique in Atlanta
Where there can sometimes be sublime appreciation for the value of a building, at other times it can be easy to overlook the potential second life of an old, run-down building that is boarded up, with pigeons in the eaves.
Don Blair, director of Morris Brown College’s architecture program, says that after he joined the college in 1989, he noticed a cornerstone marked “1865” on a shuttered campus building on Martin Luther King Drive.
He knew there weren’t many buildings left standing in Atlanta in 1865. The building, Gaines Hall, sits on the hill from which Civil War General William Sherman shelled the city, Blair says. When he learned the college had taken bids on the hall’s demolition, he began to research the site.
“I discovered it was really the oldest standing building in Atlanta,” Blair says. He and fellow preservationists quickly worked to put Gaines Hall on the National Register. The university rallied around a restoration effort.
“The minute people understood the significance of it, they began mobilizing to get funding and things like that for renovation and restoration,” he says.
The building, which had been closed for more than 10 years, was cleaned of damaging and toxic pigeon droppings and spruced up inside and out. Workers replaced the windows, cleaned the brick and brought the building up to code with ramps and elevators. They also scraped down the wooden trim to its original color, which turned out to be apple-green, and repainted it accordingly. Gaines Hall reopened in December 1998.
“The building is just absolutely beautiful,” says David Ray, a College Fund/UNCF director. “It’s amazing what you can do when there’s someone to support you.”
The work has created momentum for additional renovation. Blair is hoping to win funds to restore the campus’ grand Fountain Hall, a Romanesque building that went up in 1882. The classroom building is ready for a total renovation, Blair says. With its clock tower and archway, “It could probably be the nicest building in Atlanta,” he says.
Besides the spiritual benefit of preserving a symbol of African American heritage and the practical benefit of bringing a dying building back into use, successful renovations have ripple effects, says the Park Service’s McKithan.
“Significant things have taken place,” he says. “[The colleges] have noticed increased support from alumni, foundations and improvements in attitude among students and faculty. It also stimulates the community around the college.”
College communities aren’t always unanimously happy to see precious dollars poured into old buildings. Often there is a mindset that newer is better, lament some preservationists. But the biggest obstacle is the awareness of competing revenue priorities.
“In day-to-day operations at these institutions, there’s all kinds of difficulties … It forces [schools] to make tough decisions in fund-raising and how they prioritize,” says Ray of The College Fund.
“I think a lot of the time, HBCU campuses defer maintenance issues,” says Morris Brown’s Blair. “We’ve had some of that here, but I think we’re turning the campus around to where it will be one of the premier colleges.”
Of the hundreds of buildings identified as a group by the General Accounting Office survey, some are in real jeopardy. “Some of the buildings are going to deteriorate to the point of ruin,” Clyburn says. “Some will catch fire.”
This legislative session, he is working for appropriation of the $4 million remaining from the 1996 $29 million authorization. President Clinton, who visited Allen University with Clyburn earlier this spring, has included the allocation in his 2001 budget request. Clyburn says he will seek additional dollars if Congress reverts to Democratic control after the fall election.
There has been official recognition of the need for restoration and preservation of sites on HBCU campuses. In June 1998, 103 HBCUs were listed, as a category, on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list of Eleven Most Endangered Historic Sites in America. Some preservationists question the real-world benefit of the listing.
It’s “not much — mere recognition,” says one Alabama preservationist.
McKithan believes the designation is misleading, giving the impression that “whole schools are falling down.” But Hudson says the designation helps HBCUs leverage dollars. Prior to the listing, “nobody paid much attention,” she says. “What this did was to raise the profile of these institutions in terms of their historic value, and have people recognize the kinds of treasures on this campus.”
Unfortunately, small schools or those in rural areas are going to have a difficult time attracting corporate or community dollars no matter what kind of incentive is in place.
The federal grants’ matching requirement is “an obstacle” for some schools where campus officials have laundry lists of other places where revenue is needed, McKithan says.
For her part, Archie-Hudson is confident Talladega will raise the funds it needs, and has launched a $10 million capital campaign.
“We are going to raise the money,” she says. The campaign, still in its infancy, has raised about $37,000, mostly from alumni gifts.
Archie-Hudson plans to appeal to corporate givers in Alabama and bring in some additional revenue by converting a historic cottage to a bed-and-breakfast inn.
Also, she says, “We are going to continue to make a case to the National Historic Trust that these buildings constitute American treasures and really are a story of a significant portion of American higher education, and as valuable as all the other artifacts. The historic stock in terms of buildings on these campuses is invaluable.”
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com