Stewarding an Educational Legacy: Historic Preservation at Historically Black Colleges and Universities

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social justice
African American history
African American Studies
Historic Preservation and Conservation
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Cotton, Katlyn E

The historic campuses of Historically Black Colleges and Universities inform a story that no other setting can tell. Since before the Civil War, through Reconstruction and the Civil Rights movement, and still today, these institutions have served as the backdrop for this country’s greatest social justice struggles. They have functioned as free spaces and safe havens—places of reprieve from discrimination and inequity—where young African Americans were given the confidence and support to become leaders, innovators, and history-makers. Throughout history, these incredible institutions have nurtured an environment of empowerment, cultural reinforcement, and acceptance that has had immeasurable impacts on the lives of the students who walked their historic halls. The HBCU story, in its breadth over 150 years and across 20 states, celebrates both struggle and achievement, while foregrounding the role of education in the pursuit of racial justice. While it would be misleading to treat all HBCUs as a monolith—as they are large and small, public and private, well-funded and underfunded—it has been well documented than many HBCUs struggle with financial sustainability. This is in large part due to the double-bottom line of the HBCU mission—HBCUs seek to provide affordable access to higher education, principally to low-income and first generation students, students who were ill-served by their K-12 education, and communities that have been historically excluded from education. Despite making up less than 3% of all post-secondary institutions and enrolling only 8% of all African American students, HBCUs are responsible for 20% of all African American graduates. Their impact is undeniable. The economic and social realities that attend this noble mission demand a different frame of reference for understanding HBCU decision-making. HBCUs face the same challenges as any institution of higher education, but their mission calls them to a greater social purpose. On top of this charge, HBCUs also steward a heritage that is irreplaceable and vital to a true telling of this country’s history. In the necessary balancing of often-competing priorities, such as institutional advancement, mission benefit, and preservation, too often the spaces that contribute meaning and depth to the campus landscape are neglected, altered, or demolished. At a moment when HBCU heritage is attracting national attention, this thesis presents the heritage work of HBCUs within its own context. This thesis makes the case for the internal integration of preservation planning into general campus planning, while laying the groundwork for further study and implementation. Preservation planning is a critical tool that can help these institutions navigate the difficult negotiations between growth and preservation by building internal capacity for responsible stewardship and creating appropriate processes for considering historic resources. As well, this process encourages a broader campus awareness and appreciation of historic campus resources. Campus heritage needs to be repositioned as an asset—an investment that strengthens the institution by reinforcing its noble historic mission.

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Suggested Citation: Cotton, Katlyn (2017). Stewarding an Educational Legacy: Historic Preservation at Historically Black Colleges and Universities. (Masters Thesis). University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA.
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