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Landscape preservation’s urgent challenge: Civil rights historic sites

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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.


Shiloh Landing, Princeville, North Carolina.
Travis Klondike, courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation

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.


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The Lions Municipal Golf Course, in Austin, was the first desegregated municipal course in the South.
Lorenzo DePaolis, courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation

“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.

“Other sites are palimpsests that reveal the cultural lifeways of a community, recorded in the landscape through generations of use. Maintaining these sites and their important associations, and not allowing them to languish in obscurity, is an affirmation of what we collectively value as a society—of the history we want present and future generations to understand and remember.”


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Susan B. Anthony’s childhood home, in Battenville, New York, has fallen into disrepair.
Clifford Oliver, courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation


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Japanese-American internment sites, like the Manzanar Relocation Center in California, are threatened.
Chris Austin, courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation

In addition to Princeville, sites in the Landslide: Grounds for Democracy report include Susan B. Anthony’s childhood home, in Battenville, New York, which is important to the history of women’s suffrage; Lincoln Memorial Park, one of the oldest black cemeteries in Miami-Dade County, which has fallen into disrepair; Austin’s Lions Municipal Golf Course, the first desegregated municipal golf course in the South, which is slated for redevelopment; Druid Heights, a northern California enclave where feminists and LGBTQ activists nurtured their ideas; the Hall of Fame of Great Americans, a sculpture gallery in the Bronx; the Blair Mountain Battlefield in West Virginia, where miners fought for workers’ rights; and Hog Hammock, one of the last surviving remnants of Gullah-Geechee culture, located on Sapelo Island in Georgia.

The report also includes two categories of sites that are threatened: WWII Japanese internment camps in the Western U.S., which are struggling to receive funds that Congress has already allocated for their preservation, and lynching sites in Shelby County, Tennessee, the focus of a new project to recognize and acknowledge a painful part of American history.


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The Twin Peaks House in Druid Heights, which is part of the Muir Woods National Monument, has allen into disrepair, a challenge for many sites.
Michael Toivonen, courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation


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Lincoln Memorial Park is one of the oldest black cemeteries in Miami-Dade County and is the resting place for many soldiers from the Civil War to Vietnam.
Wikimedia Commons, courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation

With its report, TCLF hopes to raise awareness for these sites and help spark conversations about what stewardship and preservation looks like for them. Climate change is a new threat that TCLF expects to see more of in the coming years. Meanwhile, a lack of maintenance funding for sites already under the purview of National and State Parks is also hampering upkeep: “a circumstance that leads to long-term deferred maintenance and, ultimately, the quiet deaths of many cultural landscapes,” Birnbaum says.


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Hog Hammock, on Sapelo Island, Georgia, is one of the few remaining enclaces of Gullah-Geechee people. Fewer than 50 residents live here full time.
Kevin Schraer, Creative Commons, courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation

Right now, the United States is reckoning with its history and the challenge of telling a fuller (and more accurate) story is playing out in public spaces. New museums are cropping up; cities are taking stock of their monuments; and artists, architects, and landscape architects are exploring new ways to better reflect our culture spatially.

Once these sites are lost, so too is the history and lessons that could be learned from them. With this year’s report, TCLF specifically focused on sites that represent historic injustices and fights for democratic ideals—a timely reminder of what’s at stake today in a time of increasing political and social unrest. If the U.S. can’t preserve sites where it fought for its rights, what does that say about maintaining the rights themselves?

“Many of the sites and the lessons they can teach speak directly to issues once again in the headlines—an important contribution to the ongoing national dialogue about who we are, and what we want to be, as Americans,” Birnbaum says.

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