Black Lives Matter, Past and Present

Our hearts are heavy and our brains are a jumble of thoughts over the murder, verily the lynching, of George Floyd (a native of Fayetteville). Lynching is a historically accurate term for what happened to him and far too many others.

Black Lives Matter. Their stories, past and present, matter to today’s world. By telling those stories, we can acknowledge the many ways that centuries of oppression have systematically robbed black people in America — financially, socially and as fellow human beings.

As historic preservationists, we are tangibly connected to history on a daily basis. Sometimes it’s inspiring, sometimes dismal, and it’s almost always complex.

For more than a quarter century, Preservation North Carolina has worked hard to tell the whole story at the Bellamy Mansion Museum in Wilmington. The story is indeed complicated, including slavery, the 1898 Wilmington Massacre, and even the Wilmington Ten. Each of those events are relevant to where our nation stands today regarding social inequality and racial discrimination.

About thirty years ago, in the tiny town of Milton, Preservation North Carolina bought the burned-out shell of the home and workshop of Thomas Day. It was then North Carolina’s only National Historic Landmark that had been designated solely for African-American history. A free black cabinet maker, Thomas Day made creative furniture and architectural pieces for the white elite of antebellum North Carolina. His house, once nearly a complete loss, may soon become a State Historic Site, open to the people of North Carolina.

The complexity of Thomas Day’s life as a black man will open the door for candid discussions about the role of race in North Carolina history. The more that we can have those discussions across racial lines, the more likely that we can bridge the racial divide that is now weighing so heavily on our country.

Preservation North Carolina recently moved its Headquarters Office into two homes built by persons born into slavery in the historic black community of Oberlin Village in Raleigh. The story of Oberlin Village is inspirational but tragic. Where there were hundreds of homes and a tight social network, there are now only a few dozen houses left amidst commercial development, large apartment complexes, and teardowns.

The story is also typical. The recent book, The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein, describes how the United States systematically segregated neighborhoods and stole black wealth in the process. Oberlin is a textbook example.

History guides us, informs us, shapes us, if we are honest about telling the full story. Our shared history, made tangible through place, bears witness to centuries of continuous discrimination and violence. When we listen, our historic places can tell rich and diverse stories, now and in the future – and help us build a more just and equitable future. We pledge to share these stories, including the voices of the unheard and marginalized.

In this historical moment, Preservation North Carolina is committed to standing against racism and white supremacy and amplifying the voices of communities that have been silenced for too long.

Myrick Howard

President, Preservation North Carolina