On February 19, Free Harris joins Shayne Watson in a program about LGBTQ historic preservation. See the events listing below for more information. Here, he discusses some significant sites of Black queer history and how preservationists are correcting and updating the historical record.
Historic preservation is inherently a complex process. Black History Month is an opportunity to consider the specific challenges that arise when preserving Black LGBTQ places. One challenge is conducting thorough historical research to open “historical closets” — to uncover and identify the people and events that haven’t been talked about within an LGBTQ context. This also entails examining the broader networks of queer Black people, in order to reconstruct their social worlds and find unexplored threads. A good example of this kind of work is Azurest South (circa 1938), a historic house on the National Register of Historic Places located on the campus of Virginia State University, a historically Black university. It was designed by Amaza Lee Meredith, an extraordinary self-taught architect who learned the International Style, a post-World War I architectural style. Her architecture is significant on its own. So too is the fact that she lived with her partner and VSU colleague, Dr. Edna Meade Colson. This couple likely was part of a larger LGBTQ community at VSU, and that’s a network worth exploring.
Re-Centering the Obscured
We also have to reexamine familiar sites to highlight obscured figures. For example, there is the Henry Gerber House (circa 1885), a National Historic Landmark in Chicago. It was the home of the nation’s first gay-rights organization, the Society for Human Rights, in 1924 and 1925. Interestingly, one of the early presidents of the Society was an African American, John T. Graves. This is the same time period as the Harlem Renaissance, which is famous for its queer dimensions, yet Graves is an important figure in queer history who has all but disappeared from the historic record. Preservation research can help re-center figures like Graves.
There are many such fascinating examples. There’s entrepreneur and millionaire Madame C. J. Walker’s home, Villa Lewaro (circa 1916–18), in Irvington, New York. Her daughter A’lelia Walker, who inherited the home after her mother’s death, was a bisexual benefactor to queer members of the Harlem Renaissance. And the house in Columbus, Georgia belonging to the “Mother of the Blues,” Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, is a museum, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. But only recently has it become more widely known that Rainey was bisexual. Many places may have similar “hidden” histories.
Ongoing research results in our having to update the historic narratives in various listings on national, state and local historic registers to explicitly acknowledge unknown or unacknowledged LGBTQ historical information. In other instances, similar research helps us to prioritize new places worthy of preservation and/or recognition. As an out and Black preservationist, my hope is that we can get ahead of the game with regard to the preservation and designation of African American LGBTQ historic places of the recent past. I hate to admit it, but 1970 is now 50 years gone, so it’s officially historic!
Having written and spoken about African American LGBTQ historic places has been self-affirming. It’s wonderful information for all of us to know. Younger generations, particularly, are more invested in seeing the full spectrum of who we are. They want to learn about historic queer people of color, transgender people and people outside of binary gender structures. To do this work in the African American context is a joy. I’m standing on a foundation that is many generations deep.
Jeffrey A. “Free” Harris is an independent historian and preservation consultant who works with historic preservation organizations, historic sites, nonprofit organizations and academic institutions on preservation issues related to diversity and historic site interpretations.