Endangered African American Historic Sites

Olivewood Cemetery - Houston, Texas

 

Incorporated in 1875, Olivewood Cemetery in Houston, Texas, is one of the oldest-known platted African American cemeteries in Houston, with more than 4,000 burials on its 7.5-acre site. The final resting place of many notable figures in Houston's early African American community and of formerly enslaved Africans, this Texas Historic Cemetery and UNESCO Site of Memory for the Slave Route Project also illustrates unique African American burial practices developed in pre-Emancipation Black communities, including upright pipes as grave features, the use of ocean shells as grave ornaments, and upside-down or inverted text.

Over time, changing demographics and increased development led to the cemetery's decline and abandonment. Decades of neglect, vandalism, uncontrolled invasive vegetation, and the occasional use of the cemetery as an illegal dumping ground took their toll. But the most persistent threat is the impact of extreme weather events due to climate change. Historic gravesites are being damaged and even lost entirely due to extreme precipitation events that cause erosion as uncontrolled run-off and greater volumes of water move at higher speeds through the bayou adjacent to the cemetery.

The nonprofit Descendants of Olivewood, Inc. formed in 2003 to restore and maintain the cemetery and now has legal guardianship. With the support of an African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund grant in 2021, the organization has undertaken a comprehensive study to clarify the extent of the threat from flooding and erosion, and identify specific protection and mitigation measures, but advocates will need partnerships and funding in order to implement these plans.

 


Threatt Filling Station - Luther, Oklahoma

The Threatt family homesteaded in the Luther area, a part of modern-day Oklahoma that was opened to United States settlement in 1889, after the Federal system of American Indian reservations and land allotments had been established. Like many African Americans at the time, the Threatts saw Oklahoma land as a great opportunity. They joined former slaves of local Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole owners, as well as former slaves from the southeast, in seeking greater security, economic opportunity, and racial solidarity in Oklahoma. The Threatt family raised crops on their farm, sold sandstone from their quarry, and, ultimately, opened and ran the filling station.

The filling station benefited from its proximity to Route 66. State Highway 7 formed the northern border of the Threatt farm, and as traffic on the road increased during the early decades of the 20th-century, Route 66's local alignment incorporated Highway 7.  Allen Threatt made a sensible business decision to take advantage of the farm's location and open the filling station.

From the mid 1910s through the 1950s, the Threatt Filling Station was a popular roadside stop for locals and travelers alike. The station was one of a very few places on Route 66 where people of color were welcome during an age when African American children setting out on trips asked their parents why they needed to carry so much food and water, as well as toilet paper and empty jars. Black adults growing up along Route 66 in Chicago just "knew which stretches they weren't allowed to use."


Morningstar Tabernacle No. 88 Order of Moses Cemetery and Hall - John Cabin, Maryland

 

In 1880, the formerly enslaved couple Robert and Sarah Gibson bought property on what is now Seven Locks Road in Cabin John, Maryland. By 1895 nine other black families had joined them in buying land here. Together these families built a self-reliant settlement, called Gibson Grove, later just No. 10.

 

In 1882, the community organized the first black school in the district. In 1885, it established Morningstar Tabernacle No. 88 of the Order of Moses. This benevolent society helped members in times of need and in death. Its Moses Hall and Cemetery were adjacent to each other. By the 1880s the community was on the church circuit; in 1898 Sarah Gibson gave land to formally establish the Gibson Grove AME Zion Church. The school for the local black children never had a dedicated building; it was alternatively housed in the church and the Moses Hall lodge.

 

The Moses Hall foundation in Cabin John is the last known surviving remnant of an Order of Moses hall in Montgomery County.


Sarah E. Ray House - Detroit, Michigan

In 1945, over a decade before Rosa Parks famously defied Jim Crow segregation laws, another Black woman in Detroit, Michigan won an important case in the United States Supreme Court. Because of her race, Sarah Elizabeth Ray had been denied passage aboard the steamship SS Columbia on an excursion to Bob-Lo Island. According to the assistant general manager of the Bob-Lo Excursion Company, which operated the steamship, it had a policy of excluding "'Zoot-suiters,' the rowdyish, the rough, and the boisterous, and… colored."

Ray then went to the NAACP, where she filed a criminal complaint against the Bob-lo Company. 

The local courts ruled in Ms. Ray's favor. The owners of the line appealed to the Michigan State Supreme Court, which subsequently also ruled in Ms. Ray's favor. The Bob-lo Company then appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, asking the Court to hold the state's civil rights act unconstitutional because it infringed upon the power of Congress to regulate interstate and foreign commerce. In a historic ruling, The Court upheld the Michigan civil rights. Bob-Lo Excursion Co. v. People of the State of Michigan, 333 U.S. 28 affirmed the ruling of the lower courts, signaling the Supreme Court's willingness to protect the civil rights of Black Americans. This case would prove crucial in paving the way for Brown v. Board of Education.


The Pine Tree Hotel was one of the few beach hotels open to African Americans in South Carolina during segregation in the 1960s. Hurricane Hugo in 1989 badly damaged the landmark, and it hasn't been open since.

The 14-room hotel still sits boarded up on James Island in Charleston, but a new $490,000 grant will help pay to restore the historic site near Mosquito Beach, according to the Historic Charleston Foundation.

Restore Oregon has released its annual Oregon's Most Endangered Places list of historic properties that are threatened by neglect, disuse or redevelopment.

New to the list this year is an Elks lodge that served residents of the historically African-American neighborhood of Albina and others. It was home to Elks members when the organization did not allow black members at lodges, it hosted USO events for black service members and it was a YMCA.

Another property that symbolizes the city's African-American heritage is the Mayo House. The owners of the 1895 home plan to turn it into an arts and community center on the lot where a relative's boarding house stood until it was torn down under racist "anti-blight" programs in the 1980s, according to Restore Oregon. Their plan is to turn it into a community center and hub of African-American arts, history and culture.

The Malvern Rosenwald School building in Malvern, Arkansas was built in 1929. A total of $32,150 was allocated to Arkansas for the 1928-1929 budget year, which allowed the completion of 29 schools, three teachers' homes, seven vocational shops, and three school additions comprising five classrooms. Of the 29 schools completed during that period, the Malvern Rosenwald School was one of two eight-room schools built. (The other eight-room school, Scipio Jones High School in North Little Rock, has since been demolished.)

This old school is currently in the process of renovation, and this project is overseen by Henry Mitchell. Mitchell wants to see this property brought back to life, and you can help donate or give him a call at 501-818-9126 to see how you can help!

At first glance, the landscape seems to have changed little since Harriet Tubman's day. The pine forests, marshes and farm fields she once traversed as a conductor on the Underground Railroad have remained largely untouched over the past 160 years. Even the country store that was the setting of her earliest known defiance against slavery still stands along a sleepy ribbon of road.

But this sacred land is changing, its permanence imperiled by the unholy forces of climate change. By the end of this century, much of land so recently designated as the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historic Park and the area around it could be underwater, researchers say.

Willert Park Courts in Buffalo, New York is a unique example of early Modernism with bas-reliefs depicting scenes of everyday life, was New York State's first housing project constructed specifically for African Americans. Today, the site is vacant and many of its structures are open to the elements. The Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority has proposed demolishing the complex to construct replacement housing.

Listed in the Green Book, The Excelsior Club in Charlotte, North Carolina, was a leading private African American social club in the Southeast, hosting artists like Nat King Cole and Louis Armstrong during its heyday. The Art Moderne building needs significant investment. The property is currently listed for sale for $1.5 million, but even if a buyer is found, a reuse plan and significant investments are necessary to ensure a strong future.