Throughout history, the legacy of passing down familial and communal stories orally — generation by generation — has remained essential for Black communities. Slavery and racism have long made it difficult for most Black families to maintain physical records about their ancestors. Recently, there’s been an effort for even the well-documented history of the Black American experience to be removed or whitewashed in school systems throughout the nation, too.

As activists fight for students to learn about Black history, Brent Leggs wants to help preserve the physical reminders of our experiences, too.

Leggs is the executive director of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund and the senior vice president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, under which the initiative was created in 2017 to preserve “sites of African American activism, achievement, and resilience.” Since the founding of the Action Fund, Leggs and his colleagues have worked on nearly 300 preservation projects throughout the country. This work typically involves assisting local organizers by providing preservation expertise, as well as funding, technical advice, project management and other resources. Recently, the Action Fund worked with local organizers in Akron, Ohio, to create the Sojourner Truth Legacy Plaza, just a stone’s throw away from where the women’s rights activist and abolitionist delivered her historic “Ain’t I A Woman” speech in 1851. The 10,000-square-foot plaza includes a statue of Truth, as well as etchings of the names of Black women from Akron who have been civic leaders both locally and nationally. 

On the eve of the Action Fund’s recent work in Akron in late May, I spoke with Leggs about his passion for preserving Black spaces and the types of projects the organization is hoping to assist with in the future.

This Q&A has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

I know you have a development background. I’m curious how you became interested in preserving Black spaces and why this work matters to you.

When I was in graduate school working towards a graduate degree in historic preservation, I was invited to conduct the statewide inventory of historic Washington-Rosenwald Schools in my home state of Kentucky. I spent a year and a half traveling across the state meeting with local preservationists. I began to understand the quiet power of preservation and the profound impacts of history. I had read Booker T. Washington's autobiography, Up From Slavery, and I was inspired by the accomplishments of one man whose journey went from enslavement to independence. He was able to create an institution that we know today as Tuskegee University, but I had no idea that he also was responding to a crisis in Black education. When he partnered with Julius Rosenwald, together they would create a massive school building program, in many ways kind of seen as a social movement in response to [this crisis]. They would help to fund the construction of over 5,000 school buildings in 15 Southern states.

When I learned about my mom and dad's connection to this school-building program, I started to understand that the physical preservation of place, of identity, and of history created a through line to the past. I was deeply inspired that a bold idea and vision, born in the mind of Booker T. Washington, could be manifested in physical form and could touch my family's connection to American history. From that moment, I have dedicated my career in service of helping to protect and preserve Black history.

Your parents went to one of the schools that was a part of that program?

Yes, my mom and dad both went to the Washington-Rosenwald schools in central Kentucky.

You were already studying historic preservation in graduate school. Did something happen before you decided on this area of study to pique this interest?

I was a soul searcher and searching a lot for my professional identity. I had gotten an undergrad [degree] in marketing. I went straight to get a master's [degree] in business. I thought that I was going to be a Wall Street tycoon, and I moved to New York. I also had a lot of interest in real estate development and was studying [that] as part of my MBA program. When I graduated, nothing felt certain. I just started this process of exploring other educational pathways. I enjoyed learning [and enjoyed] school. I decided to walk inside of the School of Architecture at the University of Kentucky. I had a random conversation with the chair of the graduate program and historic preservation. That unintentional, random 15-minute conversation shifted my understanding of design and real estate development. He just kind of teased this so unintentionally in our discussion, but I started to understand that we could preserve historic, built environments imbued with history [and] we could use real estate development tools to revitalize historic Black neighborhoods. At the same time, we could uplift overlooked histories and stories about Black culture in America. That, for me, was really interesting. I just kind of took a chance, and I'm glad that I did it.

For people who aren't familiar with the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, can you explain what that is and how you came to be involved as the executive director?

The African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund was created in 2017, in the aftermath of [the white supremacist rally in] Charlottesville. The events that happened there sparked national discourse around the connection between historic preservation, heritage and racial identity. When we saw American citizens looking like our neighbors [and] shouting, “You will not replace us,” it was clear that they were advocating for a modern form of Jim Crow. And they were using a heritage landscape as a weapon for their advocacy.

We started having conversations internally at the National Trust about our response. It was an opportunity for us to demonstrate our national leadership, but also the significance of historic preservation in American society. We envisioned this campaign to tell the full history and to center Blackness at the core of American democracy through preservation practice. The original idea was a five-year, $25 million campaign. I am proud to say that in six years, we are igniting both a cultural reckoning and a cultural renaissance that's shifting our nation's understanding of its own history. We are helping communities to uplift overlooked and undervalued Black history.

Over the last six years, [we] have raised almost $100 million [and] supported almost 300 preservation projects. We are a revolution in the U.S. historic preservation profession.

We know funding Black initiatives isn’t always easy. And there’s been a lot of coverage regarding the recent elimination of DEI initiatives throughout the country. How have you all gone about fundraising and garnering money for these projects?

We were fortunate to have early support from a co-founder of the Action Fund, Darren Walker, who is the president of the Ford Foundation. We had developed a case statement and, when we shared it with him, he understood the purpose and the potential of our vision. When we launched, we wanted to create new forms of partnership and community, and [a] part of that community was working with philanthropists of influence and credibility, who also had access to resources. We were fortunate to have three $1 million investors that provided seed investment, so that we [could launch] in 2017.

I'm proud that we've expanded on that momentum. We have signature partnerships like the Ford Foundation, the Mellon Foundation, the JPB Foundation, the Lilly Endowment, and others that are resourcing us. It's exciting [that] at a moment where DEI is threatened, where Black history is threatened, where sometimes Black bodies and Black humanity is threatened — literally physically — that there are leaders and academia, philanthropy and business that believe in our bold vision for our nation. Confronting the unlearning that needs to happen and facilitating a new truth and recognition for a four-century-long history … that is critical to building a true national identity that reflects America's diversity.

There are many places that mean a lot to Black people, especially in local communities. What is y’all’s philosophy when it comes to preservation? What makes a place of interest the Action Fund?

To be able to reveal and showcase histories that are lesser known, we like to work in partnership with local communities that have already identified places that matter to them. They've [already] organized in some way and are building local momentum for their preservation campaign.

At a national level, we are looking to flip the script on the traditional understanding of the Black experience. For example, our work with the Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley National Monument. … We weren't necessarily engaged to remain stuck in a painful past or to continue to elevate examples of racial violence and political injustice. It was an opportunity for us to center and elevate the overlooked contribution of Black women in the Civil Rights Movement by highlighting Mamie Till-Mobley, and how her actions [and] her agency in the face of unimaginable sacrifice catalyzed the American Civil Rights Movement. We seek to honor Black women. We seek to tell stories that are nontraditional and that move us away from the stereotypical understanding of the Black experience, which is stories of slavery, or the typical stories of the 1950s and ’60s Civil Rights Movement. We want to tell stories that empower, so highlighting places associated [with] science and innovation, like the Lewis Latimer House in New York City. Or highlighting stories of Black pharmacists and entrepreneurs, like the Palmer Pharmacy building in Lexington, Kentucky. There are so many other examples that, again, help empower Black people and instill a sense of pride, but also help to educate all Americans about the complexity of Black history.

And those examples are preservation efforts that you all have been involved in?

It is. Yup.

When you think about the preservation efforts that you want to work on in the future, is it a continuation of that mission?

It’s continuing on that mission. It’s filling gaps in our national narrative. It is looking for stories of multiplicity. It’s intersectionality. It’s looking for new ways of expressing Black culture, ideals and community.