Since our nation was founded, Black churches have led at the forefront of critical and meaningful democratic reform in our society. From the abolition of slavery and the public education movement, the advent of civil rights to the expansion of voting rights, the Black church has helped interpret the spiritual mandate of democracy in ways that have not only assisted the African American community, but have extended the franchise to language minorities, women, LGBTQ communities, rural and senior citizens, and millions of other Americans. The Black Church has created a template of advocacy for the dispossessed in nations around the world, demonstrating how to defend their human dignity and demand the access and respect they deserve.
Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. writes in The Black Church, “No pillar of the African American community has been more central to its history, identity, and social justice vision than the ‘Black Church.” They are the oldest institutions created and controlled by African Americans. In recognition of its pivotal contribution, the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund (AACHAF) has received a new $20 million grant from the Indiana-based Lilly Endowment Inc. to launch the Preserving Black Churches Project.
The Action Fund project will advance sophisticated strategies that model and strengthen stewardship and asset management, interpretation and programming, and fundraising activities of historic Black churches. Through grant-making, technical assistance, and multi-year projects, the Action Fund will provide direct support to uplift the people and communities working to save these special places. In the current period of reckoning with racial and economic justice, this partnership will make an unprecedented investment in and build capacity among Black-led institutions to reimagine, redesign, and redeploy historic preservation to address the needs of faith-based institutions, assets, and stories. Together, our organizations will leverage historic preservation as a tool for equity and reconciliation and celebrate historic Black churches with active congregations as well as those with new uses as centers of civic pride and cultural value.
“Black churches have stood at the center of the African American experience and are a living testament to the achievements and resiliency of generations in the face of a racialized and inequitable society,” said Brent Leggs, executive director of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund.
“Yet despite the central role that these historic houses of worship play in the fabric of Black communities, they face a myriad of challenges. Their preservation—like that of all Black heritage sites—has often been overlooked and vastly underfunded. A critical piece of our work is to increase investments in the preservation, management, and interpretation of historic Black churches—so that they can continue to serve as the epicenters of Black communities and American heritage.”
The Action Fund is the largest preservation fund in U.S. history dedicated to the preservation of historic African American places. It works at a critical moment both in the trajectory of the National Trust and the trajectory of history when preservation, culture, and creative thinking are ascending as essential methodologies for shaping livable and equitable futures.
As a unifying force of the community’s spiritual, social, economic, and political will, Black churches have also been targeted by opponents of progress, fairness, and justice. They have survived arson, bombing and other violence, as a result of their pivotal civil role. From Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. and Bethel Baptist Church in Birmingham, A.L., to Vernon AME Church in Tulsa, O.K. and Robert’s Temple in Chicago, I.L., the Action Fund has partnered with Black churches to tell their stories of racial violence and community empowerment, while also ensuring these landmarks of cultural memory and national legacy are protected and preserved.
Since its launch, the Action Fund has raised more than $70 million and supported more than 200 preservation projects nationally, including the above-mentioned historic churches. Over the next three years, the Action Fund will partner with more than 50 churches nationwide, many of which are now suffering from threats of deferred maintenance, insufficient funding, aging and decreasing congregations, and/or sitting vacant or slated for demolition.
Meanwhile, important sanctuaries are also lost to natural disaster, like St. James AME Church, founded in 1868 and constructed in 1923, which was hit by a tornado during the last weeks of 2021 devastating the town of Mayfield, Kentucky. Through the Action Fund, St. James will be awarded $100,000 and is the first recipient of the Preserving Black Churches Project’s special emergency funding to help restore the historic church and conserve a Helen LaFrance mural damaged in the storm.
The Reverend Gloria Lasco stated, “We are filled with joy because this makes a great difference in being able to restore our historic church and mural. I can barely find the words to express our gratitude.” LaFrance is a folk artist whose depictions of rural life are collected by the likes of celebrities Oprah Winfrey and Bryant Gumbel.
This special fund will enable the project to respond to a church’s need to rebuild after an unexpected disaster that can displace congregations and leave historic assets beyond repair, especially if mitigation is not undertaken immediately. The Action Fund is pleased to make this investment and help accelerate the rescue and rebirth of this landmark imbued with community history and resilience.
Information on grants, programs, and resources will be announced in the summer of 2022. Sign up to receive updates and guidelines as they become available by visiting www.savingplaces.org/blackchurches.