Landscape preservation’s urgent challenge: Civil rights historic sites

In 2016, Hurricane Matthew, a category 5 storm, brought strong winds, rain, and catastrophic flooding to North Carolina. Princeville, a town about 65 miles east of Raleigh, was inundated after the adjacent Tar River crested. Over 700 people were evacuated.

While Princeville’s proximity to the river is threatening its existence today, it’s also what helped it come into existence: It’s believed to be the first town chartered by formerly enslaved black Americans. Historians speculate that they were able to settle here because white landowners didn’t want this swath of flood plain.

Despite surviving multiple floods and Jim Crow-era racial terror (including a campaign to get the town charter revoked), Princeville may soon disappear. This was the second time in 17 years that Princeville experienced a 100-year flood. In 1999, eight feet of water submerged the town as a result of Hurricane Floyd. Today, residents are debating if they should keep rebuilding or retreat; landscape architects are exploring new infrastructure to gird against the next flood. Financing these resiliency and reconstruction efforts is still a question mark.

Princeville is one of 10 sites named in “Landslide,” an annual watchlist from The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) of historically and culturally significant landscapes at risk of loss and erasure. This year’s list, called “Grounds for Democracy,” focuses on sites that are crucial for “remembering, contextualizing, and interpreting the struggles for civil and human rights in the United States” and that teach “lessons from a past in which the basic rights we now take for granted were publicly tested and contested.”

Inspired by the 50-year anniversary of 1968—a turbulent year filled with protest, political unrest, and social revolution—TCLF picked sites are significant to labor rights, democracy, civil rights, gender equality, and LGBTQ rights.

“What many of the cultural landscapes in this year’s report have in common is the ‘power of place’—a unique quality that accrues when a site is witness to historical events of particular importance,” Charles A. Birnbaum, president and founder of TCLF, tells Curbed.

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(Curbed, 11/12/18)