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Rich in Black history but long underfunded, these HBCU campuses will finally be preserved

A new pilot grant program is designed to help Historically Black Colleges and Universities preserve significant buildings and sites on their campuses—an initiative that is long overdue.

Rich in Black history but long underfunded, these HBCU campuses will finally be preserved
The J.K. Daniels Conference Center was built in 1923. [Photo: courtesy of Lane College]
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Since their emergence before the Civil War and their expansion in the years following the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, Historically Black Colleges and Universities have been fundamental institutions in the lives of many Black Americans. More than 100 of these institutions still operate in the United States, with notable alumni ranging from civil rights leaders W.E.B. Du Bois and Martin Luther King Jr. to novelist Toni Morrison and Vice President Kamala Harris. And despite their role in the story of Black America, many are struggling to maintain and preserve buildings and sites of historic significance on their campuses.

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A new pilot grant program from the National Trust for Historic Preservation wants to fix that. The Cultural Heritage Stewardship Initiative seeks to increase the planning and preservation of historic buildings and campuses, and has awarded a total of $660,000 in grants to eight HBCUs to put those plans in place.

Launched in July 2020, as issues of race and inequity were being highlighted in protests around the country, the initiative drew the attention of dozens of colleges and universities. For many of these schools, where enrollment tends to be only a few thousand students, funding to preserve and maintain historic resources is limited.

The Sherman E. Tate Student Recreation Center was constructed in 1936. [Photo: courtesy of Philander Smith College]
“They receive less funding than other more prominent schools, and a lot of them do struggle with balancing the need to continue the educational mission while also preserving buildings,” says Tiffany Tolbert of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “They have buildings that are vacant, that are underutilized, and that suffer from deferred maintenance.”

Tolbert says that sites within HBCUs have deep historical importance in a variety of ways, from educating prominent Black Americans to serving as sites of refuge for activists leading integration efforts in the South. “There’s a lot of significance to be found on these campuses, as it relates to education, activism, civil rights, art, and culture with the African American experience and history,” she says.

That also includes historically significant buildings. Many buildings at the older HBCUs were designed and constructed by Black architects and students at a time when Black representation in the design professions was especially low. Tolbert points to grant recipient Tuskegee University, a school founded in Tuskegee, Alabama, in 1881. The grant will support preservation planning for two buildings designed by noted African American architect Robert R. Taylor and built by students, who also made the bricks used in their construction.

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“It’s an example of self reliance, of really building your school yourself at a time when there wasn’t a lot of outside assistance offered to these schools,” Tolbert says. “And these buildings still stand. So they show the craftsmanship, they show the ingenuity, they show the design, and they are inspiring to current students as well as many others.”

Two other HBCUs receiving grants are Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Arkansas, and Lane College in Jackson, Tennessee. DLR Group, an architecture, planning, and design firm, provided the schools with pro bono assistance to apply for the grants.

Stu Rothenberger leads DLR Group’s global higher education practice and has been working on university projects for three decades. He says HBCUs have been overlooked for too long: “They just haven’t gotten the financial attention. For a lot of other institutions that certainly have rich traditions and important histories, that’s been out in the forefront and talked about for a long time, while a lot of the HBCUs have been ignored.”

Both Philander Smith College and Lane College were awarded $60,000 grants, which the colleges will use to create stewardship plans for the repair and restoration of individual historic buildings to ensure their continued use. At Philander Smith, the work will focus on the Sherman E. Tate Student Recreation Center, which was constructed by the Works Progress Administration in 1936 but has suffered from deferred maintenance for many years. At Lane, a stewardship plan will be crafted for the J.K. Daniels Conference Center, a 1923 building that the college envisions becoming a visitor center and main gateway to its campus. The projects are as much about preserving the past as thinking about the future.

“As we were looking at the grant it became pretty apparent that through this grant and this preservation study, it makes it possible to think about how the campuses can be historic preservation stewards, but also to look at the next hundred years in terms of how the colleges want to see themselves,” says Yogesh Saoji, a senior associate at DLR Group.

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The grants aim to expose students at these schools to the process of historic preservation, with funding dedicated to hiring at least one student to work alongside the design and preservation teams at each HBCU. Tolbert says that can help show students in related fields like engineering and architecture that once they graduate there are ways to apply their skills to preserving history before it disappears.

She says the preservation plans will also help these schools access other preservation resources, such as HBCU-focused grants from the National Park Service. With more resources and more attention, she says, more of these historic sites will be able to be preserved.

“A lot of times, historic buildings end up lost because it’s more convenient and easier to build another building,” Tolbert says. “But by having these plans you can at least bring that into the administrative conversations about the future of the campus and the buildings.”