PLT, Black history, and Heritage Tourism

PLT, Black history, and Heritage Tourism

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I have written before about PLT (July 3, 2008). PLT stands for Preservation Leadership Training, and is one of the best programs of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Each year (sometimes twice a year) 30 or 35 preservation professionals at various points in their careers will assemble for 8 days of VERY hard hand-on work/study somewhere in America.
PLT includes 8 hours a day of interactive lectures, and then another 8 hours a day working in teams on a local case study. But these case studies aren’t just academic exercises. More often than not the reports of the PLT participants will serve as the framework for local preservationists to tackle the challenge after the visiting preservationists have left town.
The most recent PLT was in Birmingham, Alabama in January. Priya Chhaya who coordinated this event wrote a couple of excellent blogs as the week progressed.

 

The case study in Birmingham was the Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge, Free and Accepted Masons of Alabama. This Masonic Temple, built in 1922, was (and still is) the home to Birmingham’s African-American Masons. But that’s not the half of it.

The building itself always had retailing on the ground floor and professional offices (in addition to the space the Mason’s required) on the upper floors. It was largely from this building that much of the Civil Rights movement in Birmingham was directed — on both the streets and in the court rooms.

Birmingham’s first major gathering of Civil Rights activists took place in the building in 1932. Over the years a variety of Civil Rights advocacy groups were housed in the building including the Southern Negro Youth Congress, the International Labor Defense, the Jefferson County Negro Democratic League, the Right to Vote Club and the NAACP.
It was also the office of attorney Arthur Shores who played an important role in dozens of court cases and lawsuits regarding voting and education. It was upon many of the cases Shores was involved with that the legal foundation for the end of segregation in America was built.

The building has architectural importance as well and was designed by a Black architect and built by a Black construction firm.

During the week David Flemming of Main Street Birmingham and I did a local television interviewabout the building and PLT. And it was while we were standing across the street from the building waiting for the intervew to begin that this thought occured to me:

  • Once the world economic chaos begins to regain balance, international tourism will begin to recover. And here’s what’s going to happen, first among Europeans and Japanese and then among Africans. They will ask the question, “How is it possible that a country in barely 50 years could go from a Black man being denied entrance to a restaurant to a Black man being elected President?”

What a wonderful question! But standing across from the Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge the obvious (which more often than not eludes me) became clear – the Civil Rights movement in America is not one giant story. It is a million little stories, each moving us a small step closer to having elected Barack Obama. It will be to learn those little stories that will draw international tourists to America. The rapidly rising middle classes in China and India will come to learn that story as well.

And where will those million little stories be told? In a million different places. A dozen different rooms in the Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge hold a dozen individual stories. Historic buildings are the physical manifestation of history. And those historic buildings with ties to the Civil Rights movement are where the million steps that brought Barack Obama to the White House were taken. That’s where the stories should be told.

I’ve been meaning to write on this subject since I was in Birmingham a month ago. Why today? Because of a newstory this morning about how the physical manifestations of Black history are being lost in Davenport, Iowa.

It’s natural to think of a place like Birmingham and its conntection to Black history in this country. Afterall it was Kelly Ingram Park (half a block from the Masonic Temple) where, in 1963, the world watched in horror as Bull Connor unleashed firehoses, dogs, and billyclubs on Civil Rights marchers. But places like Davenport also have their own stories in this epic, and sadly they are being lost at the exact moment when world wide interest in those stories will build. That’s a sad story socially and culturally, but also economically.

But perhaps the Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge will regain its important role in telling its story and demonstrating its contribution to making Barack Obama the President. If it succeeds, at least some of the credit should go to the participants in PLT whose excellent reports point the way.

This year a second PLT is going to be held in Deadwood, South Dakota in June. If you’re interested in being a participant, the registration deadline is in March. If you’re a professional preservationist, it will be well worth your time, effort and money. And like the previous PLTs, your efforts that week will reap rewards for the host community as well.