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Preserve or let go: Blacks debate fate of their landmarks

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Its clapboards broken and its roof collapsed, the old "Negro school" had come to the brink of its life. But as renovations on the schoolhouse began recently – a bid to safeguard and honor this tiny railroad town's black history – the project ran into opposition from a surprising source: its former students.

"There's a lot of people who don't want to be involved" because of what the school symbolizes – racial segregation, says Alonzo Penson, who attended the school back in the 1940s. "Black people have come a long way, but we still have a long way to go."

A nascent movement in the South and elsewhere to save what's left of African-American landmarks – old cabins, juke joints, and schoolhouses – is laboring to overcome a host of obstacles, not least of which is deep ambivalence among blacks themselves about preserving places associated with black oppression or discrimination.

"A lot of times have bitter memories attached to them," says Abel Bartley, a professor of African-American history at Clemson University in South Carolina. With integration and new opportunities, he says, blacks left behind the places that had once been central to African-American life. "A lot of African-Americans areas ... lost their significance," he says.

Unless there are written records or a credible oral history about a site or a structure, it can even be difficult to identify which places have a more-than-passing value to black history.

That, plus conflicting emotions within the black community about saving sites associated with slavery or Jim Crow days, makes the task of black preservation societies harder, even as money for preservation becomes available. But it's vital to do so, experts argue, especially because preservation of sites important to African-American history lags far behind efforts to save places of significance to white culture.


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