The importance of underrepresented groups in historic preservation

Posted in: Cultural Resources

Large historic brick building with many windows
Onegentlemanofveron, Homer G. Phillips Hospital in The Ville neighborhood, St. Louis, Mo., 07/08/2009, Wikimedia Commons

Primary sources like historic newspapers, old photographs, and personal papers are the raw materials historians use to build historic narratives. However, typically the primary sources that get saved in archival collections, libraries, and internet search engines mirror the social hierarchies that exist in our culture. This means that poor people, people of color, women, and LGBTQ folks, among others, are often underrepresented in primary source collections and therefore in historic narratives.

Fortunately, historians are increasingly focused on discovering and implementing innovative ways to preserve the histories of historically marginalized groups.

As outlined in previous Mead & Hunt blog posts, in 2011 the National Park Service (NPS) began work on four Heritage and History Initiatives to more fully incorporate the histories of underrepresented groups in National Register nominations and, by extension, in historic preservation and cultural resources management. The initiatives focus on American Latino history, Asian American and Pacific Islander history, LGBTQ history, and Women’s History.

Historic red brick building with pillars and arched windows
Kenneth M. Burke, Sumner High School, St. Louis, MO, 12/8/2007, Wikimedia Commons

Why do marginalized voices matter in historic preservation?

An AASLH webinar titled “Civil Rights and Place,” led by Professor Clarence Lang offers a prime example of how understanding the histories of marginalized groups is relevant to historic preservation. Lang states that in the U.S. the effects of racism and the responses of the black freedom movement differed regionally, particularly between the Midwest and the South, and these differences can be seen in the built environments of the regions. In the Midwest, large numbers of European immigrants in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century created spatially and ethnically diverse cities, underwrote two-party politics, and fueled the Gilded Age labor union movement, all of which offered African Americans more opportunities to organize. In the South, however, opportunities were limited by the more homogenous rural communities, compounded by the absence of labor union organizing.

These differences can be seen in Saint Louis, Missouri. While Saint Louis straddles the border between the Midwest and the South, the Midwestern influences were strong enough to allow African American citizens to more easily organize. This led to the construction of institutions like Charles Sumner High School, built between 1908 and 1909 to serve the needs of black students legally barred from white schools at the time. Similarly, the Homer G. Phillips Hospital, built in 1932-36, was one of the few teaching hospitals in the U.S. that trained black physicians and nurses.

postcard Homer Phillips Hospital St. Louis, MO building
Tichnor Quality Views, Postcard, “Homer-Phillips Hospital, St. Louis, Mo,” ca. 1930-1945, Boston Public Library Tichnor Brothers Collection, Wikimedia Commons

Learning about and understanding the significance of these histories directly influences what gets deemed historic, worthy of preservation. Both Sumner High School and the Homer G. Phillips Hospital are listed on the National Register of Historic Places for their importance to the African American community of Saint Louis.

What can we as a company do?

Taking our cue from NPS, the Cultural Resources group at Mead & Hunt developed its own Underrepresented Groups Initiative. As with the NPS Initiatives, our goal is to more fully incorporate the histories of underrepresented groups in our work. We developed guides to primary sources, archival collections, and research approaches that prioritize the voices of poor people, people of color, women, and LGBTQ folks.

Additionally, we’ve been actively engaged with incorporating sources like The Inclusive Historian’s Handbook, an online resource recently launched by the National Council on Public History (NCPH) and the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH), into our work. We know that a more complete view of our past is essential as we move toward a better, more inclusive future.

More work remains to be done when it comes to including the stories of underrepresented groups in Cultural Resources work.  At Mead & Hunt, the Underrepresented Groups Initiative is committed to incorporating new sources, research methodologies, and scholarly insights into our work. Historic narratives have, in the past, tended to focus on a limited subset of our population. When we narrow our focus this way, something valuable is lost. This increased attention to inclusivity as we consider our past highlights not only how far we’ve come—it illuminates who we want to be.

Rick Mitchell

About the Author

Rick Mitchell, AICP, Mead & Hunt Practice Leader for our Cultural Resources team, conducts architectural surveys and preservation planning with a focus on transportation projects. He led Mead & Hunt’s work on the Harbor Bridge project. A sixth-generation Texan, Rick enjoys discovering and documenting the state’s rich cultural and architectural history.

Read more posts by Rick Mitchell

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