Reconstruction-Era Southeast Louisiana Communities and the Uses of Historic Preservation

Authors: Theodore Hilton*, Tulane University
Topics: Cultural and Political Ecology, Historical Geography, Landscape
Keywords: Louisiana, Reconstruction, Preservation, NRHP, NPS
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/6/2019
Start / End Time: 3:05 PM / 4:45 PM
Room: 8224, Park Tower Suites, Marriott, Lobby Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded

To protect and preserve sites of significance for United States history, the 1966 Historic Preservation Act established the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP). Through intervening decades, the Register and the National Park Service have been criticized for excluding sites significant to non-white experiences. The same institutions recently released new preservation guidelines focused explicitly on Reconstruction-era African American history. This past figures prominently in Mississippi River-adjacent Louisiana communities founded by freedpeople in the late 19th century. There, historic exclusion from preservation status has enabled the encroachment of heavily-polluting industrial ventures like refineries and landfills upon longstanding communities. Using archival analysis, interviews, and ethnography, this paper considers the NRHP’s place in processes of accumulation, racialization, and dispossession along the lower Mississippi River over time. Key questions ask 1) how have historic preservation protocols largely omitted Reconstruction-era African American histories, and to what ends? 2) how are present-day imperatives underscoring these histories interpreted and carried out in NPS and state historic preservation offices? And 3) what are some ways that NRHP status is understood within some historically excluded communities—notably in sites of ongoing and increasing environmental precarity—as potentially useful moving forward? Central to this analysis is an assessment of preservation guidelines that have typically focused on architectural elements that appear as they did during some period of significance, and an evaluation of the potential for more inclusive considerations of cultural landscapes centering oral histories and recent archaeological findings.

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