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Saving Minority History


The United States has actually done a good job, compared to other countries, of making social history central to its historical memory efforts. Unlike in Europe, where imperial history still reigns supreme, in the U.S., the stories of women and Black Americans are increasingly central to our stories, as much as that might outrage racists like Mike Lee. But still, the fundamental institutions of historical memory were found by conservative whites and, especially on the state and local museum level, are still dominated by conservative whites. The National Register of Historic Places is one of these institutions that has made progress after initially listing very white places, but it still has a long ways to go.

Less than 8% of sites on the National Register are associated with women, Latinos, African Americans or other minorities. The César E. Chávez National Monument, established just eight years ago, was the first unit in the National Park System commemorating any aspect of modern Latino history.

The reason for this underrepresentation is an overly technical, legalistic approach to determining what merits designation. Historic registers at the federal, state and local levels only include places satisfying specific criteria. Typically, laws require that a site satisfy two elements for listing: significance and integrity.

Significance can result from an association with an important person or an important event. But historical accounts predominantly feature the accomplishments or events related to white, usually wealthy, people. A site can also be significant if it showcases emblematic architectural or engineering styles or techniques. But in the canon of worthy architectural styles, European styles, not vernacular techniques, dominate.

Given the political and cultural impact of the Chicano Moratorium protests, I was not surprised that associated sites were deemed to be significant. However, I was pleasantly surprised that they overcame the more difficult barrier, integrity — which might have been denied because the sites have changed so much over the last 50 years.

Usually, integrity is defined to be the ability of a resource to communicate its significance. To have integrity, a site must not have been significantly altered. It’s not typically supposed to be moved, and it’s supposed to have most of its original materials. But many significant sites associated with minorities have been altered, or even moved. Often, the materials from which they were constructed don’t endure for all that long. While Monticello has endured, its slave cabins have not. Such sites are also more likely to be threatened by neglect and environmental destruction.

The historic headquarters of the League of United Latin American Citizens in Houston is just one example of this phenomenon: It was nearly lost before a national effort to save it. Similarly, in his survey of César Chávez-associated sites conducted for the National Park Service, Ray Rast, a historian at Gonzaga University, noted that physical alterations could regrettably pose a barrier to formal designation. As another example, sites associated with the Black Lives Matter protests will no doubt change so much over the next few decades that they might well be rejected for listing if the current standards of historical integrity were applied.

The “integrity” category of the National Register is particularly annoying because it comes out of an older vision of historic preservation which is based in “things that look exactly as they did” instead of “places that we can interpret no matter how they now look.” Trying to move beyond that a bit and loosening those guidelines would be useful.

It’s also worth noting that memorialization of Black history has far surpassed that of Latino or Asian-American or Native history (outside of battlefields). There’s a ton of work that needs to be done on all these fronts, especially in the National Park Service.

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