This past summer, the African-American Cultural Heritage Action Fund (AACHAF) announced it was awarding more than $3 million in grants to 40 sites and organizations connected to Black history. On that list are three sites in Texas: Austin’s Huston-Tillotson University, the Houston Freedmen’s Town Conservancy, and the Descendants of Olivewood in Houston.
Founded in 2017 and overseen by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the AACHAF has funded the preservation of more than 100 sites across the United States that represent aspects of African-American cultural heritage. In announcing the recent grants, Executive Director Brent Leggs noted that preservation can be a valuable “tool for equity and racial justice.” Leggs emphasized that the goal of the AACHAF is to “help expand the American story and to honor the full contributions of African-Americans in American history.” The grants, therefore, are an important step in addressing preservation needs for places that have traditionally been less visible as landmarks of America’s past.
Huston-Tillotson University, a private historically black university located in the heart of East Austin, was founded in the 1870s as two separate colleges: Samuel Huston College and Tillotson College. The two united in 1952 on the 24-acre campus of the former Tillotson College. The university will use the AACHAF grant to fund window replacement and restoration of rotten wood on the 1914 Anthony and Louise Viaer Alumni Hall. Formerly known as the Administration Building, it was constructed by students trained on campus and was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1993.
The Houston Freedman’s Town Conservancy is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation of Houston’s oldest African-American neighborhood, located in the Fourth Ward. In an effort to protect this heritage district and keep the story of emancipation alive for future generations, the conservancy supports community engagement, re-education, and heritage-based tourism events. The AACHAF grant funds will allow the conservancy to hire a manager of learning and engagement.
The Descendants of Olivewood is a Houston nonprofit organization responsible for the restoration, preservation, operation, and maintenance of Olivewood Cemetery, the city’s first incorporated African-American cemetery, which was founded in 1875. Located south of the Katy Freeway at a bend in the White Oak Bayou, the eight-acre site was neglected for many years before being rescued from the overgrowth by dedicated volunteers. The organization will undertake erosion remediation with the grant funds. The cemetery has lost several graves as a result of damage caused by hurricanes, flooding, and increased runoff from nearby commercial development, making this remediation work essential to the cemetery’s future protection.
The AACHAF grants are not the only new sources of funding for African-American cultural sites in Texas worth noting. Preservation Texas, a statewide nonprofit, recently announced the receipt of a $750,000 grant from the National Park Service for its new Texas Rural African-American Heritage Grants program. Preservation Texas is one of only 11 organizations in the country to be awarded funds from the Park Service’s $7.27 million Paul Bruhn Revitalization Grants, which focus on rural communities. This award will create the largest grant program in the state for African-American heritage sites. In a September 1, 2021, press release, the organization’s executive director, Evan Thompson, called this grant “transformative,” noting that it will help to “stabilize, rehabilitate, and restore at least 10 endangered rural buildings associated with Black history” across the state.
Many of the sites that will be eligible to apply for the funding have already been featured on Preservation Texas’ annual Most Endangered Places list, a program that aims to focus attention on the state’s threatened historic properties through advocacy, assistance, and technical services. Interested organizations and property owners can visit preservationtexas.org to find out how to apply.
Financial resources like these are critical tools for fostering greater representation of the types of architectural landmarks that we value, interpret, and preserve as a community. But the hard work of preserving and maintaining these sites requires much more. Preservation Texas is seeking assistance through pro-bono professional services from architects, engineers, and contractors to continue to grow and aid their new grant program. This is a tangible way that Texas architects can help support the preservation of African-American cultural heritage sites in the state.
Allison Chambers, AIA, and Anna Nau are both senior associates at Ford, Powell & Carson Architects & Planners in San Antonio. Nau recently completed her doctorate in architecture and historic preservation at The University of Texas at Austin.