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Good News Fridays: Black Heritage Council Helps Alabama’s African Americans Discover Their Past

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Post by Carla Davis from Alabama NewsCenter

Lateefah Muhammad said many African American people have no idea that some of their history was made in their own backyard.

“In my view, there’s been this challenge in the Black community that our history doesn’t matter,” said Muhammad, chairperson of the Black Heritage Council (BHC) and a Tuskegee-based attorney. “I call it a challenge because it is not always acceptable that all history matters. The work we do through our organization helps African Americans know their history does matter and that things they may not consider as historic really are.”

Muhammad added that the BHC’s ultimate charge is to make sure Alabama’s African American story is told.

“The contributions of African Americans in Alabama and throughout the country are tremendous, and it’s our job to help bring them to the fore,” she said.

The BHC is an arm of the Alabama Historical Commission and serves as an advocate for the preservation and restoration of African American historic places in Alabama.

The BHC was created by the commission in 1984 at the urging of a group of African Americans who were seeking to implement a more concerted statewide preservation effort. It was the nation’s first African American advisory council created by a state historic preservation office and remains Alabama’s only organization solely focused on preserving these places.

A volunteer organization with 25 members from across Alabama, the BHC works with African Americans in communities and towns to interpret, document and preserve their historic places, and connect them with agencies and organizations, like the Alabama Historical Commission and the Alabama Department of Archives and History, that can provide the resources needed to put those places “on the map.”

“The AHC is honored to partner with the BHC and support its efforts to preserve Alabama’s African American history,” said Lisa Jones, executive director of the Alabama Historical Commission. “Having volunteers on the ground helping to connect the commission to communities that want to preserve their historic places is invaluable. The BHC’s work impacts so many communities and people across the state.”

Muhammad said when council members visit communities and towns, it’s not unusual for them to uncover places whose impact has been long forgotten. She cites one significant example.

“Near Gainesville, Alabama, we visited a cemetery that had been unkept,” Muhammad said. “We had a white male tour guide who took us to the grave of an African American woman who he told us had been well-educated. He told us that she had taught in Sumter County and other areas, including Africa.

“Her slave owner’s wife taught her, along with the slave owner’s children, the Presbyterian catechism, Bible stories and tales about missionaries in Africa,” Muhammad said. “These teachings left such an impression on this woman that after her emancipation, she pursued an education at the Freedman’s Bureau School (now Talladega College) to become a teacher. The woman, who was named Maria Fearing, was posthumously inducted into the Alabama Women’s Hall of Fame in 2000. Something as simple as visiting the gravesite of a person who we did not know can turn out to be significant, and we can engage people in the community around those types of stories.”

Well-known African American historic places that the BHC has had a hand in helping to preserve and promote include the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail, the town of Hobson CitySelma’s First Baptist Church and many of Alabama’s historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

RELATED: Selma to Montgomery trail leads to Alabama, national history

RELATED: Hobson City has historic distinction as Alabama’s first official Black town

The council has worked with communities to connect them to resources that can help restore lesser-known African American historic places like cemeteries, schools and churches.

The council is involved in an effort to help get the Armstrong School in rural Tuskegee designated as a state and national historic site, Muhammad said. Founded circa 1905, it is the only remaining original church school for Blacks still standing in south Macon County.

Muhammad is working through the BHC to help restore the historic Macon County Training School, which is her high school alma mater and one that began as a “Julius Rosenwald school.” American businessman and philanthropist Rosenwald help fund the construction of many schools in rural Alabama and across the South as part of his effort to support and further the education of African American children. Before the early 1900s, some African American children attended church schools.

Muhammad said when they were built, the Armstrong and Macon County Training schools had strong connections with and support from Tuskegee Normal School of Colored Teachers (now Tuskegee University).

Along with helping citizens and groups document and restore their historic places, the BHC hosts quarterly public meetings, partners with communities to sponsor preservation forums and co-hosts Alabama’s Historic Preservation conferences.

Looking to the future

Although the BHC has made great strides in telling the African American story, Muhammad said the organization has more to do. It is developing a five-year strategic plan that will be the council’s roadmap as it works to expand its reach more communities statewide.

The Alabama Historical Commission received a grant through the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The commission is using the funds to help the BHC develop its strategic preservation project, Plan 2025. The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded nonprofit, protects significant places representing the nation’s diverse culture and inspiring broad public support. Plan 2025 is funded by the National Trust for Historic Preservation grant, with support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

“In the next five years, we want to reach as many people and communities as possible,” Muhammad said. “The bottom line is we want to make sure that not only will African Americans know their history, but all Alabama citizens will know about the contributions that have been made by African Americans in Alabama. Even if one family in a community did something significant, we want the state to know about it.”

The AHC and BHC selected the Birmingham-based Ballard House Project team of consultants to help develop Plan 2025 and shape the council’s vision for the future. The BHC expects to begin implementing the plan in July.

RELATED: Ballard House expansion to emphasize Birmingham’s rich legacy and enhance nonprofit’s mission

Muhammad said a BHC goal is to serve as a clearing house with information on its website about all Alabama African American historic places.

“Knowing your history is empowering,” she said. “When people can see themselves in what has come before, it gives them a sense of connection. They realize that they’re part of something that’s bigger than they are.”

Muhammad said preserving Alabama’s African American history will take everyone working together.

“There are so many African American people and places in Alabama who need the services our organization provides,” said Muhammad. “Our history, our knowledge, our leadership and our resources in the area of preservation will be shared as we grow during the next few years. My hope and prayer are that the BHC will step up to the plate and assist the commission in helping those African American people and places. And, I also hope and pray that all of our partners, associates and other stakeholders in preservation will aid us in this great work as we engage them and us to do more.”

For more information about the BHC, call 334-230-2678 or visit https://ahc.alabama.gov/blackheritagecouncil.aspx.

During Black History Month, Alabama NewsCenter is celebrating the culture and contributions of those who have shaped our state and those working to elevate Alabama today. Visit AlabamaNewsCenter.com throughout the month for stories of Alabamians past and present.

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