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Work underway to better preserve America's diverse history

Paul Robeson - a singer and star of stage and screen from the 1920s through the 1960s - was also a social justice activist. His family home in Philadelphia is now a historic site.
Inside the Paul Robeson House and Museum in Philadelphia, there are displays featuring his movies and albums from his more than 40-year career.
Paul Robeson was a star of stage and screen, as well as a singer, whose career spanned from the 1920s through the 1960s. He was also a social justice activist, who helped guide the Civil Rights Movement.
In addition to his work as an actor and singer, Paul Robeson was “the quintessential father of the Civil Rights movement,” according to Vernoca Michael of the West Philadelphia Cultural Alliance.
The Paul Robeson House and Museum in Philadelphia honors the late actor, singer and social justice activist. It has benefitted from a grant from the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund - part of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. They’ve set aside $25 million to preserve 150 sites related to historic Black contributions.
During the McCarthy era, Paul Robeson was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee because he refused to sign an affidavit saying he was not a communist. Robeson used his time before the committee to blast members of Congress for not doing more to ensure the civil rights of African Americans.
In addition to helping preserve historic sites, preservationists point out that their work often leads to redevelopment in surrounding communities - an economic benefit related to historic preservation efforts.
Posted at 8:19 AM, Mar 30, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-30 11:19:46-04

PHILADELPHIA, Pa. — Actor, singer, activist: Paul Robeson was a man who wore many hats.

“He was really a renaissance man,” said Janice Sykes-Ross, executive director of the Paul Robeson House and Museum.

From the 1920s through the 1960s, his career on stage and screen, and his social justice advocacy, took him all over the world.

“He was the quintessential father of the civil rights movement,” said Vernoca Michael of the West Philadelphia Cultural Alliance.

Eventually, in his later years, he returned to the family home on Walnut Street in west Philadelphia, now known as the Paul Robeson House and Museum.

“I basically grew up with him being my ‘old uncle Paul,’” said Michael, who lived across the street and just retired as the museum’s director. “This house has meant a lot to this community simply because it sends out a message.”

It’s a message about history – specifically, Black history.

“A lot of our history and a lot of our story was not written down,” Sykes-Ross said. “And because of that, we're not able to trace a lot of the historic sites or a lot of our ancestors. So, having a house like this that can date back to the 1800s, that's like a phenomenon.”

It is also highly unusual because of the more than 100,000 sites listed in the National Trust for Historic Preservation, only 10% are related to historic contributions from women or communities of color.

The number of African American historic sites listed is a mere 2%.

“We go to work every single day looking to tell overlooked stories in American history,” said Brent Leggs, who leads the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, part of the National Trust.

They’ve set aside $25 million to preserve 150 sites related to historic Black contributions.

One of those is the Paul Robeson House.

“We have real strong economic arguments to make because preservation is good business for cities and in particular for rural communities,” Leggs said. “Preservation has significant economic value. It's a place-making strategy. It helps to grow creative economies.”

That is something they are seeing on a stretch of Walnut Street in Philadelphia.

“The house is starting this whole redevelopment that's really happening in west Philadelphia and we're at the focal point of that,” Sykes-Ross said.

Still, there’s work to be done.

“We would like to finish off the apex because that was never done in this last renovation,” Michael said.

It is all in the hopes that adding space can help add to the history here.

“What we want to make sure is that after we're gone, that there was a footprint,” Sykes-Ross said, “that there was a mark and there was a story to be told.”

The African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund is now working to raise another $25 million to try and help preserve an additional 150 historic sites around the country. You can learn more about their efforts by clicking here.