CRM Journal


Historic Places and the Diversity Deficit in Heritage Conservation

by Ned Kaufman


The United States has always been diverse. Now it is more so than ever. Yet historic preservation has done little to address this reality. How should historic preservation present racially, ethnically, and culturally diverse historical experiences? How should it serve diverse constituencies?

Between the nation's history as presented at its historic sites and as lived by its people lies a significant diversity gap. In 2002, the National Park Service launched a new initiative, called the Cultural Heritage Needs Assessment, aimed at shrinking the persistent diversity deficit. This article is drawn from the project's report.(1) It concentrates on one aspect of the assessment's findings, historic places, and concludes with a practical proposal for a program that the Federal Government could launch to quickly narrow the diversity gap using historic places.

While the assessment was designed to provide information and advice to the Federal Government's preservation programs, its findings are relevant to private and other government preservation programs as well. Readers seeking to close the diversity gap within their local preservation organization or historical society, statewide nonprofit, or municipal or state agency should easily be able to adapt the assessment's information and suggestions to their particular circumstances.


Throughout most of its history, the preservation profession did not consider diversity an important issue. Yet, by the 1980s, some preservation agencies and organizations were making serious efforts to incorporate African-American heritage into mainstream historic preservation work. The Alabama Historical Commission founded a Black Heritage Council in 1984, and Georgia's State Historic Preservation Office published a guide to historic black resources in the same year.(2) Historic places like Colonial Williamsburg or, more recently, Cane River Creole National Historical Park, restored African Americans to the historical picture and began to present slavery in a forthright way.(3)

The National Trust for Historic Preservation organized its 1992 annual conference around the theme of diversity and launched scholarship and training programs to nurture preservation leaders from minority communities. Congress and the National Park Service mounted a number of initiatives, including establishment of new national parks, improvements in the way national parks are interpreted, preservation grants to historically black colleges and universities, the Cultural Resources Diversity Program, the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Program, and the Civil Rights in America theme study. While institutional recognition of minority heritage continued to focus on African-American heritage, Congress and the National Park Service also have made substantial efforts to recognize Native-American heritage.

During the 1990s, two major preservation battles in New York City—for the 18th-century African Burial Ground and the Audubon Ballroom (site of Malcolm X's assassination)—illustrate both the benefits and difficulties of engaging diversity. Despite vigorous citizen participation, the preservation establishment's participation was less than whole-hearted. The resolutions to both campaigns were equivocal: a slice of the Audubon's facade and a portion of the interior were preserved as the frontispiece to an unsympathetic new building, and a small portion of the African Burial Ground within the excavated portion of the site was left intact, with reinterment of the exhumed human remains. Commemorative artwork and exhibits formed part of both compromises.

The two campaigns helped lead this author and others to launch a new program in 1998, Place Matters, which sought to identify, celebrate, and protect places of significance to New York's communities—places associated with history, tradition, or local symbolism. Though not explicitly designed or promoted as a solution to long-standing problems of racial imbalance, Place Matters made conscious efforts to recognize sites associated with African-American, Latino, Native-American, and other nonwhite, nonmajority cultures, along with ethnic European-American experiences.

Disappointingly, however, alliances forged during the campaigns of the 1990s—between, for example, preservationists and environmental justice leaders—did not survive beyond the heat of battle or prompt far-reaching change. Without a compelling reason to unite, it was easier for leaders on both sides to revert to business as usual. At the end of the decade, mainstream preservation organizations and programs in New York looked much as they had at the beginning.

This is broadly true of the field. Despite a great deal of talk about diversity and some successful programs, preservation's core institutions remain largely unchanged. The profession continues to regard minority perspectives and issues as exceptional or special cases. Basic preservation work remains relatively untouched. The National Register of Historic Places provides a case in point. National Park Service policy calls on the agency to "present factual and balanced presentations of the many American cultures, heritages, and histories."(4) Although the bureau has mounted important diversity initiatives, of over 77,000 properties listed in the National Register as of April 20, 2004, only about 1,300 are explicitly associated with African-American heritage, 90 with Hispanic, and 67 with Asian. Taken together, these properties amount to 3 percent of what is intended to be a comprehensive inventory of the nation's heritage.(5) The National Park Service is not solely responsible for the situation, nor can the bureau easily correct it. Under federal law, the State Historic Preservation Offices, federal agencies, and Indian tribes are the sources of nominations to the National Register.

The statistics reveal two diversity deficits. First, the national inventory of historic sites has not begun to fully recognize the experiences of communities outside the mainstream. Second, recognition of Asian and Latino heritage continues to lag far behind that of African-American heritage. Preservationists cannot close the second gap without also closing the first. They cannot close either gap by hoping that badly served constituents will compete with each other for a small measure of recognition. The goal is to create a thorough and accurate picture of American history: all Americans have a stake in achieving that goal.

The Cultural Heritage Needs Assessment

The Cultural Heritage Needs Assessment aimed to "gain a better understanding of what aspects of cultural heritage are important to minority cultures"—African, Asian, and Hispanic American—"and what the Federal Government's cultural programs could do to better address these aspects of heritage."(6) It set out to survey what heritage experts within minority communities want, based on their own words, and to recommend practical steps by which government agencies could use this information to improve the performance of historic preservation. The assessment covered a wide range of preservation topics—museum work, archives, the written record, publishing, folklore and ethnography, parks, historic sites, plaques and markers, heritage tourism, place-based education, cultural landscapes, and even the operation of bookstores at historic sites. The assessment documented significant heritage programs that are being carried out by minority communities on many of these topics. The assessment also documented unmet needs for government assistance, both technical and financial, in collection, curation, and conservation, as well as opportunities in ethnography, cultural landscapes, parkland acquisition, and other topics.

One of the assessment's most striking findings was to document a tremendous unmet demand for historic places—that is, formally recognized places—that tell the stories of minority communities and tell them well—with candor, generosity of information, a flair for teaching, and a willingness to reach out and engage the unseen but important issues that surround them. This is good news for preservationists, who are uniquely experienced at recognizing and preserving historic places. Preservationists, in short, can narrow the diversity deficit by doing what they are already good at doing in concert wih energetic and well-informed people who are willing to work with them in every community.

Methodology of the Cultural Heritage Needs Assessment

An important model for the Cultural Heritage Needs Assessment is the 1990 report, Keepers of the Treasures, which presented a powerful statement of tribal preservation needs and led to significant advances in federal programs.(7) However, there are important differences. Unlike tribes, African, Asian, and Hispanic Americans are not officially recognized entities, and they cannot be treated according to a government-to-government model. Furthermore, while the major constituency for tribal preservation programs could be assumed to be future tribal members, similar assumptions could not be made about the groups now being considered, particularly in light of an evolving immigration picture.

Another point of difference with Keepers of the Treasures was that, unlike many tribes, African, Asian, or Hispanic-American communities do not have officially recognized heritage spokespersons. The Cultural Heritage Needs Assessment did not consult with spokespersons, but rather dedicated experts and amateurs, representing various points of view, who were willing to talk. Most of the study's respondents were professionals in some aspect of heritage conservation; some were citizen leaders. Respondents included first-generation immigrants as well as the descendants of Spanish landowners, teachers, architects, poets, artists, archivists, museum professionals, students, dentists, heritage tourism operators, government officials, activists, film makers, anthropologists, historians, literary scholars, and professional preservationists. Respondents covered a wide age range; and they lived in California, the District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Mexico, New York, Texas, Virginia, Washington, and the Philippines.

The project's limited resources and time-frame prompted another pragmatic decision. To present the heritage preservation needs of the "Latino community" or the "Asian-American community" would have been not only impossible but presumptuous. "There is no real 'Latino community,'" writes Miguel Vasquez: "Instead, there are many."(8) Indeed, even national labels turn out to mask great complexity. "Filipinos are so diverse," sighs Angel Velasco Shaw, one of the study's respondents: "our histories are so complicated."(9) Many Filipino immigrants experienced life in this country as farm workers, but others were nurses, doctors, and cooks; still others were artists, writers, and architects. Life in New York City was different from the west coast. Immigrants from different parts of the Philippine archipelago brought different cultures with them. Those who migrated immediately after World War II may have a different outlook on Filipino history than those who migrated during the Marcos dictatorship.

A pragmatic balance was needed between extreme fragmentation and overly broad generalization. The assessment focused on African Americans (excluding recent immigrant groups), Mexican Americans, and Filipino Americans. While other groups might equally well have been chosen, these three have had great importance in American history. Africans, Mexicans, and Filipinos were among the earliest immigrants to North America. Africans arrived with the Spanish and Portuguese in the 16th century and with the English at the beginning of the 17th century. To Spanish colonists in Mexico, what later became our "southwest" was their "northeast," and when English-speaking colonists moved into the region, they found missions, presidios, and pueblos containing close to 100,000 people.(10) Chicana artist Judith Baca points out, "We didn't cross the border, the border crossed us." Filipinos first reached North America during the 16th century as sailors aboard Spanish galleons and some certainly reached California. The first permanent Filipino settlement seems to have been made during the 18th century near New Orleans.

The relationships between the United States and these three groups have been long, close, and sometimes troubled. Episodes such as the slave trade, the Mexican-American War, and the Philippine-American War cannot be forgotten. Nor can 50 years of colonial rule in the Philippines or the enduring realities of racism and intolerance in the United States. There have been positive episodes too. The point is that each region and its people are intricately braided into America's history.

As diverse as these groups and the assessment's respondents are, some significant convergences of opinion emerged. Many respondents whose experiences and opinions were otherwise quite different argued forcefully for the importance of historic places as a means of conserving heritage. This was a significant and somewhat unexpected finding. Since preserving historic places is such a central part of current preservation practice, it suggested that the preservation needs of respondents might prove to be closely in line with professional norms. In fact, the reality is not so simple.

The possibility had to be considered, first of all, that respondents were telling the interviewer what they thought he wanted to hear. That this was not the case is suggested by the open skepticism of many respondents. This was far from the first time they had been consulted by well-meaning interviewers from mainstream organizations. They were not convinced that the project would lead to concrete results. They wanted to convey hard truths, rather than ingratiating platitudes. Some also were highly critical of historic preservation, which they saw as consistently oblivious to their interests.

If respondents' emphasis on historic places seemed to be an affirmation of historic preservation, that affirmation sprang from an engagement with history that is richer and more intense than that of most mainstream preservationists—which constitutes a worthy challenge to the profession. To grasp the potential of historic-place programs for narrowing the diversity gap, it is essential to understand this view of history and its importance.

The Centrality of History

"History is important," says Alan Bergano, "because it is the foundation of a people." Like Bergano, many respondents feel that they cannot take history for granted, because history shapes identity and describes relationships with the majority culture that, in turn, defines life in crucial ways. History requires constant attention. Evidence of achievement must be unearthed, underlined, spotlit. Memories of discrimination and suffering must be maintained. And sometimes evidence of mere existence, of presence within the larger story, must be discovered and defended. This is because much of history lies forgotten or buried. Before becoming part of heritage, history must be rediscovered.

For a long time the experience of slavery was glossed over with little explanation, even excused as benign or unimportant. Putting slavery back into the story required energy and persistence. Today some Filipinos are intent on restoring historical awareness of the Philippine-American War, and others on rediscovering the historical experiences of immigrants from the Marcos era, while some African Americans are bringing back to light the history of urban churches and their pastors. Arte Público Press, based at the University of Houston, has launched an ambitious project, "Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage," to rediscover, catalog, and publish the rich and largely forgotten literary heritage of Hispanic Americans.

History, then, has little in common with the appreciation of the "finer things" that the word heritage frequently connotes, or with the "souvenir history" that Puerto Rican poet Martin Espada derides—the superficial and congratulatory commemoration of symbolic highlights.(11) History does not paint the past as "simpler times"; it is instead a relentless struggle to discover, uncover, rediscover, and recover facts about the national past that have been swept from public consciousness either because they are uncomfortable or because the evidence is ephemeral. For many respondents, history is what Antonia Castañeda calls "oppositional history": history of groups that have had to fight for rights or recognition, and history in opposition to stereotypes and social amnesia—history opposed to forgetting.

John Kuo Wei Tchen stresses, nonetheless, that the goal of this kind of history is not opposition but, rather, reconciliation, specifically racial reconciliation. Referring to lawyer and scholar Eric Yamamoto's study of the subject,(12) he underlines the importance of three steps towards reconciliation: recognition, redress, and finally reconciliation itself. The process can be described backwards. Reconciliation is achieved when people of different races and ethnicities accept one another as equals, forgive past wrongs, and withdraw barriers to equal participation in society. This requires redress: acknowledgment of wrongs and a commitment to correct them. Redress rests on recognition, and the key to this essential first step, in Tchen's view, is to educate Americans about the history of intergroup relationships.

Sometimes confronting these relationships causes discomfort—not only among white people. Referring to slavery, Jeanne Cyriaque, African-American programs coordinator for Georgia's State Historic Preservation Division, notes that "some African Americans feel it's a part of the past that they want to forget." Talking about painful historical episodes requires tact as well as honesty. Yet Tchen believes that such discussions are an essential step towards reconciliation and increased social harmony. So does William E. Davis, a New York architect who took part in the campaign to save the African Burial Ground. Davis looks to South Africa's great experiment in truth and reconciliation as a source of inspiration for Americans.

Historical Themes

Among the diverse themes of African, Mexican, and Filipino-American history, some appear with significant persistence: manual labor, persecution, exclusion, struggles for justice, achievement, contribution to society, sheer survival—and invisibility.

"I am an invisible man," announces the black protagonist of Ralph Ellison's novel of 1952, "I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me."(13) Many respondents identified invisibility as a defining part of their community's historical experience. In Los Angeles, the historic Merced Theater still stands, but guides fail to mention that it was a Spanish-language theater in the 1850s. "They erased that history," comments Nicolás Kanellos. Traveling through California, Angel Shaw knows that Filipino migrant laborers once cultivated the fields around her, yet sees no trace of them in the landscape; their history has become invisible. Shaw wants this heritage to be revealed, perhaps by putting up plaques, or by teaching about it in schools—some means that would proclaim: "There were labor camps. Right here."

Mexican and Filipino heritage advocates understand how places like New York's African Burial Ground or Selma's Edmund Pettus Bridge have helped to make African-American history visible. "To be able to go to Selma and say, I've crossed the bridge," muses Refugio Rochin, "We need opportunities for reflection like that."

Making Diverse Communities Visible

Explaining the importance of historic places, historian James Horton remarks that "It is easier to understand the people of history when you can be in the spaces that they occupied, the spaces where they lived their lives."(14) Tchen takes the argument further: gaining public recognition for historic places helps make invisible communities visible; it also helps educate other Americans about them. For Luis Francia, a Filipino-American poet and journalist, "it's important to have visible artifacts;" the artifact may be a site, monument, or marker, but whatever it is, "it reminds people that at a certain time, and at this place, there were people who lived here, achieved something, and contributed to society."

Opportunities to designate, interpret, and protect places are clearly very large. While the assessment does not include a historic places survey, it does categorize the types of places emphasized by respondents.

Points of origin
Some respondents want more focus on places associated with entry into the United States or early experiences here. For Bradford Grant, Jamestown, Virginia, is "incredible—very rich historically. As one of the first sites where Africans were enslaved and brought to this country, the place is as significant for African Americans as for European Americans." Ronald Buenaventura calls San Diego the "gateway to Filipino-American immigration" that should be recognized, as should El Paso's role, in Judith Baca's words, as the "Ellis Island of the Southwest." Baca also wants to mark early Spanish land grants.

Routes of migration
Migration has been crucial for all three groups, both to and within this country. Judith Baca would like to see the "major movements of the Mexican diaspora" presented. Inspired by Boston's Black Heritage Trail, Joan May Cordova imagines a map showing Filipino migration routes throughout the United States. Adélamar Alcántara would like to trace these migrations back to their origins in the Philippines. She would also like to mark the seasonal migrations of Filipino crop workers. John W. Franklin notes that recent research in Louisiana allows the National Park Service to tell visitors where the state's African-American families came from.

Places of experience
Asparagus fields near Stockton, California, cotton fields in the South, salmon canneries in Alaska, agricultural labor camps, sugar plantations in Hawaii, hospitals, military bases, tenements almost everywhere, downtown neighborhoods in many American cities, dance halls in South Texas, union halls, Spanish land grants, barrios in many towns and cities, churches and lodges, sites of Filipino businesses, a carrot warehouse in Grants, New Mexico—all are places where African Americans, Mexicans, and Filipinos lived and worked in significant numbers. Each respondent has a personal list of important sites that convey the experience of ordinary immigrants, places that offer extraordinary opportunities, in Horton's words, to "understand the people of history." (Figure 1)

Figure 1: Two men on a tractor during harvest.

Figure 1. Filipinos played an important role in the development of the California agricultural industry in the 20th century. They also helped to develop agricultural labor unions. In this ca. 1930s view in California's Central Valley, two laborers take a moment to pose for a photograph during the harvest season. (Courtesy of the Alvaredo Project)

Places of suffering and struggle
Many historic places associated with slavery are interpreted far better now than 10 or 20 years ago, and places connected with the Underground Railroad and the Civil Rights movement are increasingly popular.(Figure 2) Places of Mexican and Filipino suffering and struggle, however, remain largely ignored. "We should be marking…places where César Chávez worked," says Judith Baca. Refugio Rochin agrees, noting especially the 250-mile route of his march from Delano to Sacramento. Because Filipino and Mexican farm workers united behind Chávez, he has great importance to Filipinos as well. And there were other demonstrations: John Silva notes the strike at Hanapepe in Hawaii, where 25 Filipinos were killed.

Figure 2: NAACP meeting participants pose in front of the United Methodist Church.

Figure 2. Participants at the 41st annual National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) meeting in Boston, MA, in June 1950 pose before the Union Methodist Church. The meeting represents the kinds of events that led to the civil rights movement. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Roger Wilkins Papers.)

Places of achievement
How many visitors know that, in the early 20th century, White House cooks and stewards were Filipino? That represents an achievement in which John Silva takes pride. Guadalupe San Miguel wants to preserve and mark Ideal Records in Alice, Texas, which played an important role in Tejano music. Rolando Romo was moved to found the Tejano Association for Historical Preservation by the destruction of the house and grave of Lorenzo de Zavala, a pivotal figure in founding the Republic of Texas.(15) Fred Cordova would like to see a directory showing where the "Filipino illustrious" are buried.

In recent decades, historians have emphasized the importance of documenting the lives of ordinary people. Many have sought to go beyond chronicling the contributions of individuals. Yet many preservation advocates continue to feel that it is important to celebrate the contributions and the achievements of both the famous and the unknown. Judith Baca says that making known the "contributions made to the United States by [Mexican Americans] would be a profound statement…a critically important acknowledgement of how much has been given to this country." The website of the Tejano Association for Historical Preservation has a page listing 82 "Famous Tejanos & Tejanas in Texas History,"(16) while the home page of the website,, assures readers that "Filipino Americans quietly have made their indelible marks on America as politicians, doctors, judges, entrepreneurs, singers, professors, movie and television stars, etc."

Places of interaction
"Communities are typically studied" in isolation, says Dorothy Fujita-Rony, "but it's the interactions that produce some of the most interesting things in American culture." The first Asian war brides in the United States, says Dorothy Cordova, founder of the Filipino American National Historical Society, were Filipino women who married African-American "Buffalo soldiers." Respondents note marriages between Filipinos and Mexican Americans, Native Americans and Alaskans, and Mexicans and Native Americans. There were also shared cultures, life experience, and struggle. Black Americans fought alongside Filipinos in World War II. Filipinos united with Mexican farm workers behind César Chávez. Filipinos and Mexicans "have been pitted against each other" so often, laments Angel Shaw, but the reality was different. Their "complex and intertwining" cultural histories should be presented.

Many of the nation's leading cities offer exceptional opportunities for interpreting interactions. Fujita-Rony nominates New York City as a naval center and Chicago as a railroad hub. In Seattle, Filipinos shared a neighborhood with African Americans. The markets and plazas of southwestern towns, suggests Refugio Rochin, offer opportunities to understand the blending of Hispanic and Native-American cultures.

Spiritual places
The importance of churches in African-American history and community life is often noted. For Mexican Americans, Refugio Rochin emphasizes cemeteries that, he notes, were as segregated as the barrios in which they lived. Olivia Cadaval adds that these cemeteries are "living spaces" in which the stories of people and families who are connected continue to be played out; in preserving them, one would be "preserving the living connection."

Milestones of international relations
John Kuo Wei Tchen would like to mark Angel Island and the Presidio in San Francisco, California, launching points for the Spanish-American War and the subsequent Philippine-American War, as historic places. Judith Baca nominates the shifting borders between the United States and Mexico.

Places of education and presentation
Respondents identify two roles of historic places—to educate, and to present the group publicly, both to the group itself and to other Americans. All of the sites discussed above educate; some also present. Presentational sites need not commemorate specific events, but they should occupy prominent positions. Eric Gamalinda asks, "Why is there is no José Rizal statue in the United States, outside Hawaii?" Describing Rizal as "one of the few unifying factors that our fractious people have," Gamalinda proposes a statue in New York's Central Park, where so many heros of other nations are commemorated.

Icebergs: Hidden Dimensions of Historic Places

The value of historic places arises not only from their appearance, but also from the meanings attached to them, many of which are not visible. In this sense, historic places can resemble icebergs. While the word "association" is often used to denote ideas associated with artifacts but not directly visible in them, the meanings described by respondents go beyond what preservationists usually think of as associational significance.

Community, place, and culture
"Individual sites are important," says architect Richard Dozier, but some of the most significant speak to issues outside of themselves. He recalls the founding of Brooklyn's Weeksville Society in the 1970s. Had Joan Maynard merely wanted to preserve some houses that had survived from a 19th-century free black community, her task would have been relatively simple. What made it more difficult and has made the rewards greater, was her vision of how the houses could tell a broader story, and how that story could become valuable to Weeksville's modern-day African-American community.

Some of Dozier's larger issues relate to the experience of community. Pervasive segregation, he explains, made the historically black colleges and universities anchors for neighborhoods where African Americans could find housing, business services, and nightlife. Later, as the barriers of segregation weakened, African Americans "found they could get their photocopying done downtown…they could even live across town." The tightly knit, campus-centered communities broke apart, leaving little trace on the cityscape. Today, campus buildings are not only important historic places in their own right but also valuable clues to a different way of life. Dozier challenges historic preservation to go beyond preserving buildings to conveying the buildings' social context—to presenting something "more representative of the history."

For Jeanne Cyriaque, maintaining historical awareness of community life is an important preservation goal. She lists a range of building types—churches, schools, meeting places, downtown business rows—that typically serve as "community landmarks." If these do not survive, "we have to capture the spirit of place"—meaning the consciousness that a vibrant community was once present at that spot. At Springfield Baptist Church in Augusta, Georgia, for example, a community group erected a 35-foot-high "Tower of Aspiration" to "signify the many people who lived in the community."

The problem of maintaining a "spirit of place" without built resources is pressing, because powerful forces of destruction have long been aimed at African-American neighborhoods: railroads, highways, mortgage redlining, abandonment, and urban renewal. John W. Franklin would like to organize an exhibition on "all of the African-American communities destroyed by highways…and other public works projects." The threats continue, and new forces of commercial development and gentrification have joined the older ones.

The most pervasive threats to resources associated with community life are directed at urban neighborhoods. These are generally located "at the center of the city," notes Cyriaque, "and now everyone wants to live there." True, white neighborhoods experience problems such as insensitive redevelopment, but while white activists typically describe the problem as a loss of amenity or architectural quality, Karl Webster Barnes, chairman of Georgia's African American Historic Preservation Network, frames it as a "removal of cultural memory."(17)

Mexican-American respondents also see historic places in a larger cultural context. They too face the challenge of preserving significant places without surviving buildings. Sometimes this arises because historical experiences took place in fields or factories, rather than monumental architecture. Elsewhere, a place's importance lies in people's knowledge of the place itself. Judith Baca refers to this as land-based memory, or "la memoria de nuestra tierra," the title she chose for a mural at Denver International Airport. Mexican Americans' "depth of presence" in the land, she points out, is unrivalled except by Native Americans, and "people believe that memory resides in the land." Indeed the longevity of Mexican communities has meant not only a strong southwestern culture but distinctive local cultures as well—traditions, stories, music, and ways of making a living as disparate as farming, ranching, or cutting railroad ties. Throughout the area, she says, there are "amazing stories of regional land memory." (Figure 3)

Figure 3: Old Trujillo ranch house.

Figure 3. Places like the Trujillo Homestead juxtapose ethnic heritage and the development of the American West. A first generation Mexican American, Pedro Trujillo owned and operated this ranch in Alamosa County, CO, from 1879 to 1902. Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the ranch house, pictured here, is significant for its association with the period of contention between family owned Hispanic ranches and larger European-American ranches over land, resources, and control of the San Luis Valley. (Courtesy of Thomas H. Simmons, Nature Conservancy.)

Land memory has practical dimensions too. By and large, the United States failed to honor its treaty promises to respect Spanish land grants and much land left Spanish ownership—over a century and a half after the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, says Judith Baca, "People live with this every day." Olivia Cadaval remarks that in parts of the southwest, heritage issues issues revolve not around cultural identity but around land grants. Baca, Cadaval, and Rosaura Sanchez all agree that the grants should be marked. That would, at least, help to maintain the memory of deep presence in the land.

Like other respondents, Luis Francia wants "visible artifacts" to be "tied into the larger representation of Filipino heritage and culture." As "representations of actual people and events," Angel Shaw similarly urges that places have plaques or other information tools to build out the story. Beyond plaques, representation for Francia means preserving collections, documents, and oral histories. For John Kuo Wei Tchen, it means public education, the first step in the "real redress" of deeply divisive social problems.

Teaching with historic places
Many respondents want historic places to teach, to teach better history and more of it. Where minority groups are concerned, however, the struggle for a full and fair interpretation can be exhausting. Two decades ago, as part of an important study carried out for the state of California, Antonia Castañeda identified a number of important Mexican-American historic sites and proposed improvements in the state's official site markers.(18) Yet her impression is that little has changed.

An archeologist once predicted that the richest sites for unearthing new masterpieces of ancient Urartu culture would not be the mountains of eastern Turkey but the basements of museums, where heaps of objects awaited proper identification. In the same way, many existing historic places await proper identification. When Nicolás Kanellos notes that Spanish drama was presented at the Merced Theater in Los Angeles during the 1850s, he identifies the Merced as a Mexican-American site; tour guides can now present it as such. When John Silva points out that early Filipino sailors left statues or tabernacles at some California missions, he identifies them as Filipino sites; curators can now interpret the Filipino presence. But the missions present bigger challenges. While many of them are preserved and celebrated, notes Rosaura Sanchez, they are "mostly for tourists" and present a "quaint" view of the past.

One of the quickest ways to create "new" African-American, Mexican, and Filipino places is to interpret these groups' roles at existing sites. Filipino presence at the White House has already been mentioned. The National Park Service plans to revise its interpretation of Philadelphia's Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell to acknowledge slave quarters on the site. How much richer the story would be if it also included the Latin American revolutionary leaders and intellectuals who flocked to Philadelphia during the 19th century, inspired by the city's contribution to the cause of liberty. The story of Faneuil Hall, one of Boston's most popular tourist attractions, could be similarly enriched by including demonstrations against the Spanish-American War that took place there. If these three icons of American history can readily divulge such unexpected and important stories, how many other stories are awaiting rediscovery in historic places across the country?

Beyond telling a good story, says Nicolás Kanellos, "You have to have something for people to see" at historic sites. The best history museums are sophisticated at presenting complex stories, and historic sites can enrich their interpretation by presenting artifacts and documents more engagingly. Bookshops, too, allow site managers to put knowledge into the hands of visitors. Yet Kanellos reports that in museum and historic site bookshops across the country, "Hispanic presence is nil."

Marketing historic places
A site lives through public awareness, but respondents pointed out that awareness of sites and collections is often low. John Silva believes that historical organizations and agencies could dramatically expand their constituency by getting the word out. In fact, the National Park Service has made a substantial effort to market its programs to African-American audiences. Virgilio Pilapil urges the National Park Service to publish a list and map of historic sites with particular relevance to Filipino Americans. There are also opportunities for many other federal and state agencies, as well as authors and publishers, for printed and Internet guidebooks, itineraries, and trails that direct travellers to African-American, Hispanic, and Filipino historic places. Substantial gains can be made by disseminating information about existing resources.

The Work Ahead: A Proposal

The question is "what next?" The answer should reflect the dynamics of the information-gathering process itself. "There is a lot of frustration out here," comments Richard Dozier. Many respondents are tired of being asked their opinion.

Disillusionment with well-intentioned fact-finding is widespread: there is skepticism about whether it will lead to action. While respondents are eager to work with the National Park Service, Gerald Poyo warns that the bureau could "do more damage than good" if it fails to follow talk with action. Poyo has a suggestion: before asking more questions, put some money on the table. Launch an initiative; then convene experts and community leaders. Very simply, respondents are saying: enough talk—now we want action.

The Federal Government, led by the National Park Service, should undertake an initiative to identify, protect, and interpret places of essential importance to the nation's diverse history. The bureau should also quickly assemble a team of experts outside of government, including historians and community leaders. No mere review committee, this group should work directly with the Federal Government in shaping and carrying out the project.

To provide a thematic focus, the Federal Government and its steering committee of volunteer advisors should consider organizing the initiative around places that reflect the interactions among (and within) ethnic or racial groups in American history. Many respondents expressed particular interest in this theme, which would have wide relevance as well as public appeal.

Although the National Register of Historic Places is a logical vehicle for such an initiative, the National Register is not under most circumstances authorized to nominate places. That is the prerogative of the states and other nominating authorities. The National Park Service could, however, provide technical assistance and encouragement, for example, by publishing National Register bulletins on identifying and evaluating places associated with African Americans, Mexican Americans, and Filipino Americans, and by offering workshops in collaboration with citizen groups.

Unfortunately, official designation standards make it difficult to recognize many crucially important sites. Most troublesome is the integrity standard, which requires that listed sites survive substantially unaltered from their "period of significance." The challenge is that many important historical experiences did not take place in buildings that have survived intact. They took place in open fields, barrios, labor camps, union halls, social clubs, street-front churches, bunkhouses, tenements, cabins, factories, and docks. Where such resources have survived, respondents want to preserve them. But where they have not, many respondents report a strong sense of connection to the places where people had lived and struggled. Jeanne Cyriaque's "spirit of place" typifies the sense expressed by many respondents that these places are hallowed by the presence of their predecessors. National Register standards that emphasize integrity of historic properties make it more difficult to honor this consciousness of place and history. Such standards also saddle preservation efforts with an unintended bias against working-class and immigrant history. These biases should be corrected: The National Register should be fully capable of recognizing the values of places and the historical connection that people feel towards them.(19)

As important as the National Register and other inventories of historic places are, there is much more that the Federal Government can do as part of this initiative to realize the educational value of historic places. The National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities, the Library of Congress, and Smithsonian Institution have done important work in documenting and preserving the history of diverse communities. They have much to contribute to this initiative, as do the Institute for Museum and Library Services, State Historic Preservation Offices, and state and regional arts and humanities councils. These agencies have or can create archives or databases of historical and ethnographic materials related to the sites; fund curricular materials, publications, websites, public art, or markers to increase public understanding of the sites and stories; and assist in cataloguing and conserving priceless archival and museum collections. In addition to listing places, the National Park Service itself can update exhibits, interpretation, and bookstore offerings at national parks. Whatever its precise components, the initiative should combine deep respect for the spirit of place, a rigorous commitment to history, and a passion for teaching. It should identify the places and tell the stories; promote bricks and books; preserve and interpret; inspire and educate.

The proposed initiative could culminate with the publication of "how-to" guides that citizens' groups throughout the country will be able to use for years to come. These handbooks can be modeled on the excellent guides that already exist for identifying African-American historic places, but they should also include guidelines for plaques, public art, guidebooks, curricular materials, and local preservation campaigns.

Challenges Ahead

This initiative will not, by itself, close the diversity deficit. It is a down payment. The deficit will be closed when we have a preservation system that incorporates diversity into its basic structure. Only by diversifying the profession itself, through staff jobs, contract work, and partnerships, will the discipline's resources be fully mobilized to address the heritage of minority communities. Only then will the expertise of minority communities become fully available to the preservation profession.

This work should be accelerated, but it will take time to accomplish. Meanwhile, an ambitious historic places initiative can build working relationships, marshal resources, and create institutional capacity. Most importantly, such an initiative can create a public history of the national past that reflects its true diversity. Preservationists should be satisfied with no less. Nor should the American public.


About the Author

Ned Kaufman is a cultural heritage consultant based in New York City.



1. Copies of the draft Cultural Heritage Needs Assessment Report can be obtained from the Diversity and Special Projects office, National Park Service, 1849 C Street, NW (2251), Washington, DC 20240, and online at, select "research."

2. Carole Merritt, Historic Black Resources: A Handbook for the Identification, Documentation, and Evaluation of Historic African-American Properties in Georgia (Atlanta, GA: Historic Preservation Section, Georgia Department of Natural Resources, 1984).

3. For museums' responses to African-American issues, see James Oliver Horton and Spencer R. Crew, "Afro-Americans and Museums: Towards a Policy of Inclusion" in History Museums in the United States: A Critical Assessment, ed. Warren Leon and Roy Rosenzweig (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1989).

4. National Park Service Management Policies 2001, Sec. 7.5.5. Quoted from Emogene Bevitt (comp.), "National Park Service Policies Regarding Native Americans, Park-Associated Communities, Public Participation, and Community Relations" (January 2003).

5. The Keeper of the National Register of Historic Places provided the number of total properties listed in the National Register and the number of properties associated with African Americans, Asian Americans, and Hispanic Americans as of April 20, 2004. The Keeper also stated, "Most properties are not listed by virtue of their association with a particular ethnic group—only 3,000 of the over 77,000 listings include reference to one of the seven groups for which statistics are maintained." The groups include Asian, Black, European, Hispanic, Native American, Other, and Pacific Islander. In addition, "The National Historic Preservation Act compliance process is a major driver for identifying properties and yet does not necessarily result in listing in the National Register of Historic Places. Thousands of properties are listed on state inventories and hidden away in the grey literature of National Historic Preservation Act compliance documentation that are associated with various ethnic groups."

6. National Park Service, "Cultural Heritage Needs Assessment Project: Phase I," project statement, 2002. The assessment was sponsored by the National Park Service's National Center for Cultural Resources, with advice from the Smithsonian Institution's Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and the Library of Congress's American Folklife Center. While focusing on historic preservation, its findings touch on park and historic site management, museum collection and curation, folklore, ethnography, and the operation of bookshops. The findings will be relevant to federal agency staff, State Historic Preservation Offices, local preservation nonprofit organizations, museums, park agencies, and researchers.

7. Keepers of the Treasures: Protecting Historic Properties and Cultural Traditions on Indian Lands, A Report on Tribal Preservation Funding Needs Submitted to Congress by the National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior (National Park Service, 1990).

8. Miguel Vasquez, "Latinos—Viva La Diferencia!," CRM 24, no. 5 (2001): 22.

9. In the remainder of the article, sources for statements without footnotes are respondents to the study, who were interviewed in person or by telephone between July 2003 and March 2004. Wherever statements refer to a specific ethnic or racial group, respondents are members of that group, unless otherwise noted.

10. David Hornbeck, "Spanish Legacy in the Borderlands," in The Making of the American Landscape, ed. Michael P. Conzen (New York and London, Routledge, 1994), 51-62.

11. "Poetry and the Burden of History: An Interview with Martin Espada," published on the website of the University of Illinois's Department of English at I am grateful to my daughter Emily Kaufman for this reference.

12. See Eric Yamamoto, Interracial Justice: Conflict and Reconciliation in Post-Civil-Rights America (New York: New York University Press, 1999). Yamamoto outlines four steps to reconciliation: recognition, responsibility, reconstruction, and reparation.

13. Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952; New York: Vintage International, 1999), 3.

14. James Oliver Horton, "On-Site Learning: The Power of Historic Places," CRM 23, no. 8 (2000): 4.

15. Rolando M. Romo, "The Founding of the Tejano Association for Historical Preservation," unpublished paper.

16. The Tejano Association for Historical Preservation, Lorenzo de Zavala Chapter,

17. Karl Webster Barnes, "Your Vision, Your Memory, Your Challenge: Preservation is Good for Your African American Neighborhood Revitalization," Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Historic Preservation Division, Reflections 2, no. 4 (September 2002): 6.

18. See Five Views: An Ethnic Sites Survey for California (Sacramento, CA: State of California, Department of Parks and Recreation, 1988).

19. For a sampling of some of the building types associated with outsider ethnic groups, see Five Views. For a discussion of the integrity criterion, particularly as it relates to industrial buildings, see Ned Kaufman, History Happened Here: A Plan for Saving New York City's Historically and Culturally Significant Sites (New York: Municipal Art Society, 1996), pp. 48 ff. For traditional cultural places, see Patricia F. Parker and Thomas F. King, Guidelines for Evaluating and Documenting Traditional Cultural Properties, U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, National Register Bulletin 38. For a discussion of traditional cultural properties within the general context of preserving sites associated with tradition, see Ned Kaufman, "Places of Historical, Cultural, and Social Value: Identification and Protection," Environmental Law in New York 12, no. 11 (2001): 211-12 and 224-33, and 12, no. 12 (2001): 235 and 248-256.