Symbols of Hope and Resilience

Kemba Braynon, AIA
Kemba Braynon
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We reveal and record the histories of significant places, allowing communities to begin the work of preserving them for future generations.

In 1959, Vaughn’s Bookstore opened on Dexter Avenue in downtown Detroit—the first Black-owned bookstore in the city. Through the next several decades, Vaughn’s served as an epicenter for local African American culture and politics and was a hub for activism during the Civil Rights era. Rosa Parks was among its notable patrons.

The store closed in the 1990s and the building that housed it has long been vacant. The stories and memories associated with this landmark might easily have faded away, as has happened with many buildings and sites that have played impactful roles in local—even national—African American history. But Vaughn’s Bookstore will be remembered, thanks to a recent grant from a National Park Service (NPS) program aimed at documenting and commemorating historic sites in underrepresented communities.

A few miles to the north, the Birwood Wall stands within Detroit’s West Eight Mile neighborhood. The wall is six feet high and a half-mile long, slicing between neighborhoods in a predominantly Black community. It was constructed in 1941 by a residential developer to segregate Black neighborhoods from a new white subdivision at a time when redlining was prevalent. The wall served as a prominent racial barrier—both physical and symbolic—for decades.

More than 80 years later, the Birwood Wall still stands. While demolition was once briefly considered, local residents lobbied for its preservation as an enduring symbol of hope and resilience. In 2021, the structure was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Speaking about the wall, Rochelle Riley, director of arts and culture for the city, has reminded residents, “History that is lost is history that can be repeated.”

My colleagues documented Vaughan’s Bookstore and the Birwood Wall as part of a study of civil rights-associated sites in Detroit for the Michigan State Historic Preservation Office. Now that the stories of these places have been revealed and recorded, the community can begin the work of preserving them to teach and inspire future generations.

Left: A photo of a man standing in a bookshop. Right: A photo of a rundown commercial building.
The building that housed Vaughn’s Bookstore, long owned by civil rights advocate Ed Vaughn, was set to be demolished until we uncovered its role as a center of Black intellectual life in the 1960s.
A photo of two children climbing on a water fountain in front of a mural-painted wall.
Detroit’s Birwood Wall was constructed in 1941 to separate Black neighborhoods from a new white subdivision. We recently documented the wall as an African American civil rights landmark and it will be preserved as a symbol of both the city’s past and the community’s resilience.

Gateways to Preservation: Challenging the Standards

In recent years, the NPS, National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP), and many state and local historical associations have recognized the importance of preserving sites of historic significance to marginalized communities in this country. Many of these properties have been long overlooked or devalued, and—unlike Vaughn’s Bookstore and the Birwood Wall—are still at risk of being lost forever to public memory.

Today, fewer than 10% of the sites on the National Register reflect the histories of women and/or African American, Latino, Asian-Pacific, Native American, and LGBTQ people. Efforts to address this striking inequity have surged over the past two decades, led in part by a Congressional Act in 2000 that directed the NPS to identify and prioritize sites that illustrated civil rights history. This effort led to the creation of the NPS study Civil Rights in America: A Framework for Identifying Significant Sites. Today, the NPS administers two significant grant programs—the Underrepresented Community Grants and African American Civil Rights Grants—that provide funding to identify, document, rehabilitate, and interpret these important sites.

A photo of Barack Obama and a woman looking at museum exhibits.
Our work for the Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument in Washington, D.C., including a Historic Resource Study, has helped to emphasize the role of women of color in the struggle for voting rights. The work reflects the importance of intersectionality in promoting equity and inclusion in preservation work.

Another milestone occurred in 2017, when the NTHP launched its African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, aimed at “preserving sites of African American activism, achievement, and resilience.” Under the direction of noted preservationist Brent Leggs, the fund has supported hundreds of significant historic places including homes, museums, and landscapes that represent African American cultural heritage – such as the Modern-era Education Building at the Second Baptist Church of Detroit, designed by renowned Black architect Nathan Johnson.

A vintage photo of a historic church with a modernist addition.
Quinn Evans Principal Saundra Little, who once had the opportunity to interview Nathan Johnson, led the study that documented the importance of the Second Baptist education building designed by Johnson in 1968. We assisted in the National Register of Historic Places nomination for the property.

Leggs has emphasized the importance of re-examining preservation standards that “privilege architectural value and material integrity” and favor “intentional monuments.” These traditional standards do not appreciate the everyday community places, like Vaughn’s Bookstore, that have served as the backdrop to so much of African American history. Leggs stresses that we need to broaden our perspectives on cultural preservation in order to tell a more complete national story, noting: “If the United States has one cultural legacy that has informed human rights around the world, it is the American Civil Rights Movement.”

Similarly, Stephanie Ryberg-Webster, writing in Toward an Inclusive Preservation: Lessons from Cleveland, has urged preservationists to “directly address structural barriers to inclusivity inherent in the field,” and cautioned that “architecture and integrity are often the gateways to preservation protections and benefits, but, in marginalized communities, they are an excuse for exclusion.”

Privileging History, Memory, and Truth

My own journey to becoming both an architect and an advocate for diversity in cultural preservation began when I was a young child. My mother, among the first African American students to desegregate her high school in South Carolina, went on to become a professor of urban planning with a deep love of cities and an appreciation for the multicultural origins and contributions that create thriving, distinctive communities.

My father, who grew up in Detroit, was a history professor. From a young age, I was taught the importance of sharing stories from the past and honoring the narratives that reveal both the adversity and achievements embedded in African American history. As an architect, I quickly came to recognize the power of place in storytelling, and how historic buildings, landscapes, and sites hold evocative memories and truth. I recognized early in my career that architects can play an important role in creating value and relevance for historic properties that have long been dismissed and disregarded.

As part of a Quinn Evans design team, I had the opportunity a few years ago to explore the feasibility of reopening the Brewster-Wheeler Recreation Center as a community-focused, mixed-use complex in downtown Detroit. Here, stories from my family intersected in a meaningful way with my work as an architect. My father grew up in Brewster-Douglass and had been one of the many children who swam at the segregated recreation center when he was a child.

Telling my father about the redevelopment study, and the opportunity to save the building from demolition and transform it into a community asset once again, soon had him reminiscing about his childhood. This storied building, where Joe Louis once trained and the Harlem Globetrotters once played, was central to both the happy memories of his childhood as well as his stark recollections of a racially divided city. The prospect of saving this building delighted him.

A photo of a derelict building.
A rendering of the same building fixed up.
We created a feasibility study and conceptual rendering for the redevelopment of the Brewster-Wheeler Recreation Center as a mixed-use destination with a restaurant, event space, and offices.

DEI Principles: A Mission, A Process, and a Way Forward

Years ago, Quinn Evans committed to our “DEI” mission: prioritizing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion principles in all our projects. This is central to the preservation work of our Heritage Studio, where we seek to tell the full story and represent all voices from the past and present.

Historian David McCullough has wisely noted that “History is no longer a spotlight; we are turning up the stage lights to show the entire cast.” Over time, and with hard work to evolve our perspectives and our biases, we are moving away from the cultural defaults that have plagued architecture, and the preservation field in particular. As professionals and community partners, we seek today to be culturally inclusive, and to consider thoughtfully who might be excluded and how we might reach and engage them. We strive to respond to and address concerns rather than resisting the perspectives that don’t fit our assumptions.

We know that our most successful work tells the complete story, embraces complexity, and encourages a sense of belonging for all. We understand that we cannot be intimidated in driving important change in our society; rather, we can be leaders.

A photo of an elementary school entrance with some children and an adult.
Our community-inspired rehabilitation of Dorothy Height Elementary School in Baltimore preserved cherished spaces such as the auditorium—the site of decades of community events and celebrations. Families, neighbors, and former students all took part in the expansive community engagement and planning process.
A photo of five people standing in a landscape.
We engaged tribal historians and consultants and carefully studied the Indigenous history of the sacred lands of Iowa’s Blood Run site to create a Cultural Landscape Master Plan. The development of the plan leveraged our DEI principles to achieve an equitable, inclusive, and culturally sensitive vision for the site.

The Power of Preservation: Lifting Up Communities

Inherent in many preservation projects is the ability to empower voices and entire communities, and to lift them up economically and culturally. By recognizing, saving, preserving, and protecting landmarks that speak to the history of the traditionally marginalized—the recreation centers, homes, lodges, churches, theaters, dance halls, and neighborhood businesses that sustained oppressed communities for generations—we not only become stewards of true history, we nurture hope and opportunities for the future.

A photo of a boarded-up building with a sign reading The Blue Bird Inn.
We are working with the Detroit Sound Conservancy to rehabilitate the legendary jazz club the Blue Bird Inn as a community music venue and archive. Preservation efforts are envisioned to expand educational and arts opportunities in its disinvested neighborhood.

As the NTHP’s Brent Leggs has said, “Preservation makes the gap between space and time disappear. Unlike any other form of history, there’s power in preservation.” Part of that power lies in education. Through thoughtful interpretation and engagement with the public, landmark structures and sites can help ensure that history will not be forgotten or retold through a biased lens.

As architects—and as government representatives, developers, building owners, historians, and community members—we are entrusted with the stories of the past, whether they are well known or as yet undiscovered. Preserving significant memory sites—however modest in form—and researching and revealing their truth honors and reconnects us to the past and emboldens us to move forward with pride, resilience, and determination.

A photo of a middle school entrance with several children.
Our modernization of Dorothy Hamm Middle School in Arlington, Virginia, preserved the 1950s-era main entrance where four African American students first entered in 1959 to desegregate the school. Exhibits, artwork, banners, and interpretive elements focus on the school’s role in the civil rights era, ensuring that future generations of students understand this important history.

Learn more about our inclusive approach to historic preservation by watching our webcast “Queries & Theories: Race & Preservation” with Brent Leggs of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

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