As we approach the Juneteenth holiday, we’ve been talking a lot about Black history in America and the work being done to preserve it. We know our history runs deep in this country but admit we aren’t aware of all the historic places where our history (outside of slavery) happened. Enter Monica Rhodes, one of the highest academically trained historic preservationists with expertise in preserving African American sites. Monica, just recently named a Harvard Loeb Fellow, sat down with us for an interview on her work in the space and why it’s so important to protect our built history in the U.S.
Tell us about yourself, like where you grew up and who your biggest influences were as a kid?
I’m originally from Waco TX. As a 6th generation Texan, I’m very proud to represent the possibility of what happens when you tell an inclusive history to children. They are not only able to learn about other groups, but can see themselves also centered in the narrative of what’s learned in the classroom. One of the biggest influences that I had growing up of course were my parents and my grandmother. My grandmother, Enetta, would introduce me to American history, through the lens of African American literature, cinema, poetry and music. Years of exposure and conversations gave the me the gift of sight, not only for understanding my world as a little Black girl from Texas, but a long view of history that shaped my professional path.
What is historic preservation? And how is the work to preserve African American historic places different?
Preservation is more than just protecting 19th century architecture or historic house museums. it’s about leveraging the cultural legacy of communities, valuing places and creating opportunities for new stories and histories to emerge. In other words, preservation is about people. Working with communities to identify under told stories is critical for ensuring that the diversity of places is preserved is representative of the diversity in our country.
How did you get into historic preservation?
I think there’s two ways to answer that question, but I will lean on how I formally entered the preservation field and that was through an internship jointly managed between the African American Museum in Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, funded through the Preserve America grant. The goal of the project was to identify African American historic resources across the state of Pennsylvania excluding Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, which means I spent the summer of 2008 in Scranton, Meadville, Williamsport – to name a few cities. That summer, I was introduced to preservation by understand communities through studying the built environment. I was fascinated, that I decided to get another master’s degree in historic preservation at the University of Pennsylvania’s Weitzman School of Design. The rest is history.
What are some of your proudest moments within this work?
Back in 2011, there was a broad coalition of local and national nonprofit partners, like the National Trust for Historic Preservation, advocating to create a monument at Fort Monroe. Fort Monroe, located in Hampton Roads Virginia, was the place where enslaved Africans were brought to the country in 1619 at Old Port Comfort. Fort Monroe is also known as Freedom’s Fortress because in 1861 General Benjamin Butler decided to not return 3 self-emancipated Black men to the Confederacy, choosing to utilize their skills in support of Union efforts, instead. This would soon be known as the Contraband decision. at Fort Monroe word got out to other enslaved Africans and thousands found freedom behind Union lines. My role in that project was to find a way to ensure community participation. That summer, I researched and identified 8 churches that were established by the descendants of Freedom’s Fortress, wrote a letter on behalf of the pastors that eventually made its way to President Obama’s desk as he used his presidential powers under the Antiquities Act to create Fort Monroe National Monument. Fast forward a few years later as the founding director of there HOPE Crew program at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. We celebrated the 100th project of the program at Fort Monroe on Juneteenth.
We heard you were just selected to be a part of the next class of Harvard Loeb Fellows. Congrats! What are you most looking forward to as part of the program?
Thank you, this program is, a phenomenal opportunity for me to immerse myself in the academic environment at Harvard University over the next year I’m looking forward to being able to reflect deeply on the role that historic preservation plays in our country and spend time learning from my accomplish cohort. I’m looking forward to this transformational experience and sharing my journey along the way.
When you think about the preservation movement of the future, what aspirations do you have for people of color in the industry?
I would say more generally, I’m looking forward to the preservation movement to really understand and become more comfortable with connecting our work to current issues. For example, our nation is having public discussions on what children should and should not be learning in the classroom, if we see our field as a leader in putting forward more inclusive and fuller histories, then there should be no reason why every preservationist isn’t up in arms about the implications of these decisions.
For people of color or the global majority, I hope that the ranks of those interested in being involved in this work, this legacy work, continues to grow and expand – more voices are needed, more diversity is needed and not just around race/ethnicity. I’m looking forward to more differently abled preservationists coming joining the movement to provide expertise and thought leadership. Over the course of my career, I’ve been honored to stand in the gap for communities that may not be at the formal table yet – although we know preservation activities happen in communities across the country – and look forward to uplifting their voices when they arrive.