By Rosetta Miller-Perry
Publisher, The Tennessee Tribune
For all the impressive-sounding rhetoric you hear during Black History Month and some of the recent markers and streets that have been given new names, African American achievements and landmarks are not getting the attention and attention they deserve. There are approximately 95,000 entries nationwide that bear 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 main task of monument preservation has in far too many cases been to preserve and celebrate something that does not deserve to be honored, at least not in any kind of celebration. As documented by writer Casey Cep, the federal government initially invested in monument preservation to preserve Confederate battlefields, cemeteries, and burial grounds 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]Because a lot of biases have been written into the criteria that determine how sites are selected,” Cep wrote. “The law has largely failed to protect Black historical sites.”
For example, one criterion for preservation is architectural importance, which excluded buildings such as slave huts and tenement houses, leaving them to decay beyond salvation. Without the protection offered by historical designation, some historically black neighborhoods have been actively destroyed: intentionally burned down in the post-Reconstruction era of racial terror or displaced by freeway projects, gentrification, and urban renewal in recent decades.
The refusal to designate Black historical sites has gone hand-in-hand with the absence of African Americans in the institutions that decide which history is preserved. The NHPA has created 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 make up less than 4 percent of academic archaeologists, 5 percent of licensed architects and engineers, and even less than 1 percent of professional preservationists.
However, Nashville has an opportunity to do something about the historic denial of black landmark status. Unfortunately, there are some in our community who put personal gain 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 landmarks listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The building at Dr. 330 MLK Jr. Blvd was built in the 1920s by black architects McKissack and McKissack. It illustrates the work of Moses rather than his brother Calvin.
Built by the National Baptist Convention USA for the Sunday School Publishing Board, it serves the world’s largest black religious community. It was named for Rev. E.C. Morris, President of the National Baptist Convention. A building with so much history and tradition shouldn’t just always be a part of Nashville’s black community; It should be used in a way that is relevant and important for the future.
Unfortunately, a group of ministers now appear to want to sell the building rather than convert it into what it was meant to be, the Nashville Civil Rights Museum. It’s a shame that a city with a history of activism and involvement in the civil rights movement like Nashville doesn’t have a structure dedicated to commemorating the people and events of that era. Naming streets after civil rights activists is certainly wonderful, but it doesn’t replace the importance or influence of a dedicated civil rights museum.
That Memphis has a civil rights museum and Nashville doesn’t should bother anyone who cares about properly celebrating and honoring black culture, heroes, and achievement.
The Tribune calls on anyone who would like this building to remain in the hands of our community and be transformed into something that symbolizes and recognizes both its past and that of Nashville’s black heroes to let those who wish to sell it know that this is something that SHOULD NOT HAPPEN.
In fact, the folks who are so anxious to offload another community landmark should step up and let everyone know why they want to do this and why they never even considered converting it into a civil rights museum or just preserving it it and keeping it a landmark of the Black community.
Unfortunately, there have been and always will be profiteers in our community, those who place their primary focus on getting dollars flowing into their pockets rather than something that benefits the community at large.
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 appreciate why it was built and what it means to the black community past, present and future.