Complicity in a Shared Work of the Imagination

Clayborn Temple

Clayborn Temple (photo credit: Steve Jones)

Last week I had the privilege of launching the National Trust’s National Treasure campaign for Clayborn Temple, a landmark in the history of the Civil Rights movement.  It was here where Memphis sanitation workers gathered in 1968 and decided to go on strike, marching with their “I Am a Man” signs that became a potent symbol for all that is at stake in the fight for equal justice.  Clayborn Temple was where the leadership of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. transformed the strike from a local labor dispute into a national issue, effectively tying the sanitation workers’ cause with the national issues of economic justice and racism. It was to Memphis and Clayborn Temple that Dr. King was returning when he was struck down by an assassin’s bullet.

To be in that sacred space with more than 150 Memphis residents, young African American poets and musicians, revered spiritual leaders who walked with the sanitation workers, preservationists of all ages, and current members of the workers’ union was an honor and a reminder of how the story of Clayborn Temple could be ripped from this weekend’s headlines.  We are still addressing the issues those sanitation workers and their supporters faced almost fifty years ago.  Preservation, remember, is not only about the past, but is also about today and the future.

It just so happened that I was reading a new book while traveling to and from Memphis.  Lewis Lapham’s Age of Folly:  America Abandons Its Democracy, covering America from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the 2016 election, has much to digest and ponder.  I’ll return to it more fully at some point in the future to explore Lapham’s contention that an acquaintance with history can serve as folly’s antidote.  But one of the opening essays related so closely to what had happened at Clayborn Temple that I quoted from it while in Memphis.

This 1992 essay is entitled Who and What Is American?  In response to the false construction that the American people share a common code of moral behavior and subscribe to identical theories of the true, the good, and the beautiful, Lapham writes,

The American equation rests on the habit of holding our fellow citizens in thoughtful regard not because they are exceptional (or famous, or beautiful, or rich) but simply because they are our fellow citizens.  If we abandon the sense of mutual respect, we abandon the premise as well as the machinery of the American enterprise.

I Am a Man.

What joins the Americans one to another is not a common nationality, language, race, or ancestry (all of which testify to the burdens of the past) but rather their complicity in a shared work of the imagination.  My love of country follows from my love of its freedoms, not from my pride in its fleets or its armies or its gross national product.  Construed as a means and not an end, the Constitution stands as the premise for a narrative rather than a plan for an invasion or a monument.  The narrative was always plural—not one story but many stories….

If we indulge ourselves with evasions and the pleasures of telling lies, we speak to our fears and our weaknesses instead of to our courage and our strength.  We can speak plainly about our differences only if we know and value what we hold in common. (Emphasis mine)

I Am A Man

Sanitation Workers in March 1968 outside Clayborn Temple (photo credit: Ernest C. Withers/Withers Family Trust)

So much of the story at Clayborn Temple points to what it means to be American, and who gets to decide.  When we were there to celebrate that space and its rebirth last week, I felt we were doing the “shared work of the imagination” that is required if we are to ensure that our faith in the republic does not—to use another of Lapham’s memorable phrases—“degenerate from the strength of a conviction into the weakness of a sentiment.”

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

The Firebrand and the First Lady

Pauli Murray

The Firebrand and the First Lady by Patricia Bell-Scott

During August I took the time to read Patricia Bell-Scott’s recent book “The Firebrand and the First Lady” about the friendship between Pauli Murray and Eleanor Roosevelt.  Both women were instrumental in the struggle for social justice in the 20th century.  Eleanor Roosevelt’s life and impact is well documented.  But Murray’s story – that of an African American member of the LGBTQ community, Civil Rights and Women’s Rights activist, the lawyer responsible for producing what Justice Thurgood Marshall called “the Bible of Civil Rights law,” a poet and writer, the first female African American Episcopal priest, and an Episcopal saint – has fascinated me ever since our colleague Karen Nickless brought Pauli Murray’s childhood home in Durham, North Carolina, to the attention of the National Trust.  Early in 2015 we named the house a National Treasure, and are at work in support of its preservation and its listing as a National Historic Landmark.

The release of this 2016 book was timely, as it raised the level of attention to the work and legacy of Murray while also showcasing the possibilities for using the place where she spent important parts of her childhood to further that work into the 21st century.

Bell-Scott’s work is rich in detail of the unlikely relationship built between Murray and ER (as the First Lady is referred to throughout the book). It is also an excellent read.  Pauli Murray was a trailblazer, often taking steps that other – more celebrated – individuals took many years later.  Bell-Scott notes that “Murray’s politics, temperament, and resolve to be herself frequently frustrated her family, friends, and people in organizations she admired, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Episcopal Church.”  The author also suggests that “these difficulties also contributed to her marginalization, until recently, in the historical record.”

Irin Carmon, the co-author of The Notorious RBG:  The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, points to Murray’s role as a “before her time” brilliant, yet individualistic, leader in a laudatory review of the book in the New York Times.

“You could say Pauli Murray was born too soon, and saying so captures the essential injustice of her life, but it would also rob her of credit for making her own time the best she could. “I’m really a submerged writer,” Murray once told her friends, “but the exigencies of the period have driven me into social action.” The granddaughter of a woman born into slavery and a mixed-race Union soldier, Murray was arrested for refusing to sit in the colored section of a bus 15 years before the Montgomery bus boycott and for participating in restaurant sit-ins in the early 1940s, long before the 1960 sit-ins at Woolworth’s lunch counter. She led a national campaign on behalf of a black sharecropper on death row.”

Seeing the modest house that is being restored for the Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice in Durham, North Carolina, and reading Bell-Scott’s book about the life that transformed – and continues to impact – so many other lives today, I am reminded of President Obama’s message when he named Pullman a National Monument“That places that look ordinary are nothing but extraordinary. The places you live are extraordinary, which means you can be extraordinary.”

Pauli Murray House

Pauli Murray House before restoration (2015) and after exterior work (2016) (Photo credit: Pauli Murray Project)

Pauli Murray certainly came from a place that looked very ordinary.  But her life – as chronicled in The Firebrand and the First Lady – is nothing short of extraordinary.

Pauli Murray Mural

Portrait of Pauli Murray, on a wall in downtown Durham, NC

Near the end of this compelling and highly recommended book, Bell-Scott quotes Murray’s comments at a 1982 conference on ER’s role as first lady – the first major conference on the subject following her death two decades earlier.  Previously, Murray had been reluctant to talk publicly about her friendship, but she “hit her stride” when speaking at the conference of ER’s impact on her life.

“I learned by watching her in action over a period of three decades that each of us is culture-bound by the era in which we live, and that the greatest challenge to the individual is to try to move to the very  boundaries of our historical limitations and to project ourselves toward future centuries.  Mrs. Roosevelt, a product of late nineteenth century Victorianism, did just that, and she moved far beyond many of her contemporaries.  I like to think that I am one of the young women of her time, touched by her spirit of commitment to the universal dignity of the human being created in the image of God (which we theologians call “imago dei”).  Hopefully, we have picked up the candle that she lighted in the darkness and we are trying to carry it forward to the close of our own lives.”

 This quote – and the whole book – speaks to how we can both challenge and support each other in our work toward social justice and human wholeness.  There is much to consider in these few lines, especially in light of current events.  I’m pleased that the National Trust is doing its part to ensure that the life and legacy of Pauli Murray – as seen through the place where she was nurtured – lives on, providing inspiration to today’s citizens and generations to come.

More to come…

DJB

Places That Look Ordinary Are Nothing But Extraordinary

Pullman National Monument Designation

President Obama Designates Pullman as a National Monument

I don’t often mix my work into More to Come…. But then again, I don’t often hear the President speak so eloquently about the work with which I’m engaged.  Last Thursday was one of those days.

After 24 hours in my own house, I was on the road once again to Chicago last week.  Cold. Frigid. Windy. Chicago.  It wasn’t a destination I would have sought out in February, except for the fact that President Barack Obama was going to designate Pullman a National Monument.  At the National Trust, we were part of a coalition working for this designation, and I was proud to join our team at the celebration.

These types of events with government and political leaders are often perfunctory – at least from the politician’s standpoint.  Last Thursday – with the President on his home turf – was anything but.  You knew we were in for a treat when his opening remarks began with this ode to Chicago’s winter: “It’s always been a dream of mine to be the first President to designate a national monument in subzero conditions.”

Pullman, if you do not know the history, is a remarkably intact industrial town of historic buildings and landscapes. Located 13 miles south of downtown Chicago, it was built by industrialist George Pullman and through all the change that has taken place in this small community, it stands today as representative of the heart of the American Labor movement. Strikes that began in Pullman in 1893 and spread across the country led – in the long arc of history – to the establishment of Labor Day, a 40-hour work week, the weekend, overtime pay, safe workplace conditions, and the right to organize for higher wages and better opportunities. The first African-American Union – the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters – had ties to Pullman. The men and women who worked and labored in Pullman – white and black – helped create the American middle class.

Pullman

Pullman (Photo Credit: Cynthia Lynn via National Trust for Historic Preservation)

President Obama told the story of Pullman in deeply personal terms, as they related to his life, the life of his family, and to the life of all Americans.

I want this younger generation, I want future generations to come learn about their past.  Because I guarantee you there are a lot of young people right here in Chicago, just a few blocks away, living in this neighborhood who may not know that history.

I want future generations to know that while the Pullman porters helped push forward our rights to vote, and to work, and to live as equals, their legacy goes beyond even that.  These men and women without rank, without wealth or title, became the bedrock of a new middle class.  These men and women gave their children and grandchildren opportunities they never had. 

Here in Chicago, one of those porter’s great-granddaughter had the chance to go to a great college and a great law school, and had the chance to work for the mayor, and had the chance to climb the ladder of success and serve as a leader in some of our cities’ most important institutions.  And I know that because today she’s the First Lady of the United States of America, Michelle Obama.

Then he continued, and the White House transcript includes the reaction from the crowd:

So without this place, Michelle wouldn’t be where she was.  There’s a reason why I’ve got one of the original copies of the program for the March on Washington, a march for jobs and justice, with A. Philip Randolph’s name right there as the first speaker, framed in my office.  Because without Pullman, I might not be there.  Of course without Michelle, I’d definitely not be there.  (Laughter.)  Whoever she married would be there.  (Laughter and applause.)

Then – in contrasting the great national parks of natural beauty with a place like Pullman – the President spoke directly to the students who filled the bleachers in the high school gymnasium, saying:

…To the young people here today, that’s what I hope you take away from this place. It is right that we think of our national monuments as these amazing vistas, and mountains, and rivers. But part of what we’re preserving here is also history. It’s also understanding that places that look ordinary are nothing but extraordinary. The places you live are extraordinary, which means you can be extraordinary. You can make something happen, the same way these workers here at Pullman made something happen.

That’s not to tell you that life is always going to be fair, or even that America will always live up to its ideals. But it is to teach us that no matter who you are, you stand on the shoulders of giants. You stand on the site of great historic movements. And that means you can initiate great historic movements by your own actions.

Secretary Jewell with DJB

Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell with DJB at the community celebration in Pullman

It was a day of great celebration.  It was a day when one of the country’s most eloquent presidential speakers was able – because of what Pullman meant to him as a man, a husband, a father, a worker, and an American – to explain to all Americans why Pullman matters today, and tomorrow, and to future generations.  Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis were on hand, and I shared with them an ad we placed in that morning’s Chicago Tribune thanking the President, Secretary, and Director for their leadership in saving Pullman. And there were more than 500 people from the neighborhood – people who have been saving Pullman and recognizing its relevance for decades – who were there as well.

And I did say it was a celebration for the entire neighborhood.  Argus Brewery makes fine craft beer in a former Schlitz distribution center in Pullman. To celebrate the monument designation, they produced a one-day only brew – Pullman Monumental Lager.  My colleagues in our Chicago office got a case, and we shared one beer after the party. Even the President had four cases delivered to Air Force One.  Unfortunately, I was flying United and couldn’t take mine with me through airport security…something that isn’t a problem for the President!

Pullman Monumental Lager

Pullman Monumental Lager from Argus Brewery

 

Lager Description

Description of the Pullman Monumental Lager

What a way to celebrate!  Congratulations to all the folks in Pullman and the organizations such as the National Parks and Conservation Association who worked so hard to make this happen.

And if you have about 25 or 30 minutes, do yourself a favor and listen to the President’s remarks about Pullman.  It is a great history lesson.  The President’s comments begin after the 32 minute mark.

More to come…

DJB

My Turn on Music Row

Studio A Press Conference with Ben Folds - Photo Credit Rick Smith

(Photo Credit: Rick Smith)

I’ve often said I have one of the best jobs on earth.  I work with amazing people to save some of the best places in the country. I get to see some amazing sites. I have the chance to explain why these places matter.

Last Monday was one of those days.

The National Trust designated Nashville’s Music Row as a National Treasure. Nashville is undergoing an amazing transformation, where growth is putting pressure on some of the most important places in the history of country music. When a threat arose last summer, Musician Ben Folds and several other Nashville insiders worked hard to save historic Studio A from demolition. We joined them in this fight and – in the process – expanded our reach to all of Music Row. Knowing of my Tennessee roots and my love for roots and country music, our team asked if I would help launch our campaign.  It took me about 3 seconds to say yes.

As you can see above, we had a great turnout from the media and from friends in Nashville.  It was a great day professionally and personally. Ben and Mike Kopp of the Music Industry Coalition were incredibly articulate spokesmen for the preservation of Studio A and Music Row – and two very nice guys. Sharon Corbitt-House – who runs Studio A for Ben and Mike – was ready to fight the bulldozers to save this treasure. Aubrey Preston – one of the huge heroes in this saga in that he bought the building at the 11th hour – was already a preservation hero of mine for his work to save the historic Franklin Theatre, where my father had been a projectionist in the 1930s.  I had a chance to talk Doc Watson and Gallagher guitars with Congressman Jim Cooper. Heck, I was even in the “Picture of the Week” from the Nashville Business Journal laughing as Ben was taking a photo of the media taking pictures of him.

Studio A Press Conference, photo credit Nathan Morgan, Nashville Business Journal

(Photo credit: Nathan Morgan – Nashville Business Journal)

So, it was another great week in my job.  But the threat to Music Row is real – and it isn’t going away.  There’s much to be done. I know that my colleagues and I will work hard to help the good folks in Nashville to save this special place.  And I hope that my words last Monday will help.  Here are my remarks from the press conference last Monday in Studio A after I was introduced by Ben Folds:

Ben Folds has been one of the heroes of the fight to save Studio A – telling the story of this place as persuasively as he tells stories in his music. And he fits into a great tradition.

Singers and songwriters in Nashville have been telling stories of life’s ups and downs for decades. Some of the stories I remember are Sunday Morning Coming Down. He Stopped Loving Her Today. I Fall to Pieces. Jolene – which was recorded in this very space.

Music Row has had its share of ups and downs. But like so many characters in a country song, it survives. It is time we ensure that we tell the story of the place that produced these classics. It is time we ensure that the buildings that made that story possible have a bright future.

So as a native Tennessean who grew up with a deep love for the music of this city, I’m pleased to be with you as we look toward a future for Music Row that fits Nashville’s role as the heart and soul of country music.

We have much to celebrate today – the designation of Music Row as a National Treasure….

The formation of the Music Industry Coalition to help secure a future for this landmark….

And, of course, the fact that we are gathered here in this historically significant studio which was saved from demolition just a few weeks ago.

Although it seemed Studio A was destined to be lost, we can see today the new partnerships that emerged along with the enthusiasm and commitment to plan a future for Music Row that honors its unparalleled place in America’s cultural life.

I am delighted to be here today to officially name Music Row as one the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s National Treasures.

The National Trust is the nation’s largest private organization dedicated to saving America’s historic places, with more than three-quarters of a million members and supporters.

While the Trust’s awareness of Music Row’s challenges began with the short-term “save the place” campaign for Studio A, the need to address the long-term sustainability of Music Row quickly became apparent.

The challenges for Music Row are different from those we frequently see in our preservation work across the country. In many places we are faced with economic distress and a lack of jobs.

In Nashville, the opposite is true. By 2035, the city will be 20% larger. More than 12 million visitors each year come to experience Music City.

We only have to walk out this door to see the result. Construction is everywhere. Development has begun pushing toward Music Row creating pressures to sell properties to make way for new apartments, condos and hotels.

As residents have watched what is happening, a citywide conversation has emerged: What is the future of Nashville and where is the place for our culture and heritage? Particularly important for all of us here today is the question: Do we want to imagine a Nashville without Music Row? I don’t. It’s the heart and soul of this great city and a national treasure.

In 1954 Owen and Harold Bradley opened the first music business in a Quonset hut on 16th Avenue. For the last 60 years music businesses have worked here in late 19th and early 20th century residences or larger commercial buildings. This eclectic mix of buildings and businesses has created a unique environment – the kind of cultural district that cities across the country are spending millions of dollars to create as part of a creative economy. We have it here in Nashville. Right now!

Through events and activities in the coming months, the National Trust and our partners will continue to increase awareness and appreciation for Music Row’s history, the impact it has on Nashville’s economy and the worldwide recognition Music Row brings for Nashville.

Music Row joins a diverse portfolio of more than 50 places around the country that are threatened and face an uncertain future. These National Treasures include historic buildings, neighborhoods, communities, landscapes, ships, and engineering landmarks.

Our National Treasures campaigns demonstrate the value of preservation by encouraging Americans to take direct action to save places and promote their history and significance. As the Presenting Partner of the National Treasures program, American Express has pledged $2 million to help promote and enable the preservation of these cultural and historic places. The National Trust is mobilizing its more than 60 years of expertise and resources to help protect this place.

Although we know the music came from here, until now the story of Music Row has not been fully told. Nashville’s visitors know the singers and the songs that were recorded here. It is “their” music as well.

All of which bring us back to this building and the studio which holds so much of Music Row’s history. We look forward to working with the Preservation Partners as exciting plans develop to celebrate Studio A’s 50th anniversary and to position the studio for another 50 years as an irreplaceable part of Music Row.

But we will not work alone.

I want to applaud the work that Mike Kopp and the board of The Music Industry Coalition have undertaken in the past six months, bringing together property and business owners, musicians, artists, songwriters and others who will work together to plan and advocate for Music Row.

Historic Nashville, Inc. – with special thanks to Melissa Wyllie and Robbie Jones – held its annual “Nashville Nine” announcement here last September, adding more voices of support to save the studio while they contributed funds to our first project of documenting the history of Music Row. Historic Nashville is the newest official local partner of the National Trust, and we look forward to working with them in the months and years ahead.

I want to thank Metro Nashville Historical Commission executive director Tim Walker for his leadership in raising funds for our historical research and documentation project, especially in his work to gain contributions from the newly formed Metro Historical Commission Foundation and our statewide preservation partner, the Tennessee Preservation Trust.

Our thanks also go to Terry Clements, vice president of government and community relations, and Butch Spyridon, president and CEO of the Nashville Convention and Visitors Corporation for their financial support of the historical research project.

To Gail Danner and the Danner Foundation – thank you for your financial support of our historical research project.

I’d like to recognize Congressman Jim Cooper who is here with us today. Congressman Cooper is a hero to the music industry – thanks to his work to enact new legislation that now allows musicians to carry their instruments onto planes as carry-on luggage. For any of us who have seen our guitars disappear into the bowels of an airplane, we say “thank you!”

Finally, there are four people I would like to recognize individually:

• Thank you Mayor Dean for joining us today and for your support and encouragement these last few months as we have all worked together to organize and prepare for today and the work that will come in the months ahead.

• Ben Folds for sounding the alarm and making all of us aware of the impending loss of this historically significant building and the importance of planning for Music Row’s future. As he has said, “He was the one with the flashlight” shining it on this special place.

• Trey Bruce for organizing a “Save Studio A” campaign that quickly built a network that included over 13,000 Facebook friends and kept the media focus on the studio throughout the summer and early fall.

• And especially we say thank you to preservation hero Aubrey Preston for his understanding that this building holds much of Nashville’s music history and for stepping in to save it. We are also excited about the newly formed “Preservation Partners” with Mike Curb and Chuck Elcan joining Aubrey to renovate and revitalize this building.

The National Trust’s designation of Music Row as a National Treasure brings our commitment to demonstrate the value of preservation of this place and to plan for its sustainable future. We have assembled a team with expertise in historic preservation, real estate development, heritage tourism, community engagement and public relations to work with our local partners. Many of you have already met and have been working with our National Trust team, but I will quickly introduce them – Carolyn Brackett, who lives here in Nashville, is our project leader and an indispensable part of this effort. In addition, I want to recognize and thank Alicia Leuba, Grant Stevens and Erica Stewart. You will be seeing a lot more of them.

Four years ago I wrote an op-ed for the Nashville Tennessean, in which I said, “It matters how we build our communities and how we preserve them. When we lose the places that matter to us, we lose more than buildings—we lose the sense of community and the sense of civic pride and responsibility that follows. Being thoughtful stewards of these places is hard work. But it’s a job worth doing. We’re not just hanging on to yesterday, we’re building tomorrow.”

Some of my favorite country music songs – like the ones I mentioned earlier – are tinged with sadness. But that will not be Music Row’s fate. We look forward to working with all of you in the coming months to help forge a happy ending for this national treasure, so its studios and musicians can keep moving us with their stories for decades to come.

Thank you.

More to come…

DJB