Representation and The National Register in Minnesota

Lena Olive Smith and client at Olive Hair Store, Nicollet Avenue, Minneapolis. Courtesy of MNHS.

The National Register of Historic Places recognizes places with national historical significance. But, does this recognition extend to places that represent different ethnic and regional identities? What does the data from the National Register tell us and what are some organizations, states and individuals doing to reconcile lack of representation?

What is the National Register?

The National Register of Historic Places is a list of places that are considered worthy of preservation at a national level. The worthiness of a place is determined by an advocate for that place working with State Historic Preservation Office staff and a National Register Review Board at the state level. Their recommendations are sent to the State Historic Preservation Officer for signature and then to staff at the National Park Service in Washington, D.C. The final step in the process is for the Keeper of the National Register to officially add it to the National Register list. 

The places that are nominated to be listed in the National Register have to meet Criteria for Evaluation. While the National Register Criteria brochure was last updated in 1997, the actual Criteria have not been updated since the National Historic Preservation Act was passed in 1966. The National Register Bulletin: How to Complete the National Register Registration Form has guidance on choosing “Areas of Significance” within each Criterion. This can be one or more categories from the list “Data Categories for Areas of Significance”. The category in the Area of Significance related to ethnic and regional identities is “Ethnic Heritage.” On the National Register application form an applicant can choose Asian, Black, European, Hispanic, Native American, Pacific Islander or Other if they believe the place is significant because of its Ethnic Heritage. The Area of Significance is not required to have an Ethnic Heritage affiliation. Other categories an applicant can choose from are Architecture, Education, Engineering, Law, Religion, Transportation and so forth.The National Register application also has a section called “Cultural Affiliation,” but that is only used for Criterion D, which is a resource’s potential to yield important information, most commonly used for Archeological Sites. This blog post focuses on places listed under Criteria A-C.

Representation

Now to take a turn, I’ll come back to the Area of Significance in a bit. I want to clarify who I am referring to when I mention representation within the National Register. According to the Minnesota Legislature, Minnesota has Ethnic Minorities that are defined as American Indians, Hispanics/Latinos/Latinas, Asians and Blacks. In brief, the U.S. Census shows Minnesota residents currently identify as 84% White / 7% Black or African American / 1% American Indian and Alaska Native / 5% Asian / 0% Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander and 3% Two or More Races. Also, 6% of Minnesotans identify as Hispanic.

Now, back to the National Register requirements–nowhere does the application require racial identification or ethnic heritage, nor does the application require a certain percentage of applications be related to a certain ethnic identification. Also, nowhere in the Minnesota State Historic Preservation Office requirements do they call for identifying as an ethnic or racial minority on or within applications. Due to the lack of this type of requirement, the only way to determine if a certain identity’s history is represented on an application is that it is identified as an Area of Significance on the form or if it is mentioned in the Description and Statement of Significance (categories on the application form). Also, ethnic and regional identities and population variations are considered fluid in Minnesota. As a 2009 disclaimer by the Minnesota State Demographer’s Office states, 

Racial and ethnic groups are social, not biological, categories, and they change over time. For example, the Hispanic/Latino category was not used in Census data before 1970, and multiple race data was not collected before 2000. It is likely that racial and ethnic concepts will continue to change in the future. New identities may emerge. The growing diversity of the population and the increase in the number of people of mixed backgrounds could make racial identity less salient. On the other hand, unforeseen societal changes could lead to more focus on racial differences than we have now. 

Representation in the National Register 

When attempting to look up what is listed in the National Register in Minnesota right now, the Statewide Database is not currently available. There is a National Database. The website says it only lists properties from 2013 and earlier with details. I did check if more recent listings were included and they were not. When searching the National Database, it shows 1,766 properties are listed in Minnesota from 2013 and earlier. You can Advanced Search by “Area of Significance.” The first table below shows the properties for each Ethnic Heritage group in Minnesota and the name of the resource listed under that category. The second table shows the Ethnic Heritage categories as the percentage of the 1,766 total properties listed in Minnesota.

Table 1: Ethnic Heritage categories and places listed in the National Register for Minnesota
Asian Black European Hispanic Native American Pacific Islander Other
• Fujita, Jun,
Cabin
• Smith, Lena O., House

• Avalon Hotel

• Bullard, Casiville,
House

• Hall, S. Edward, House

• Harriet Island
Pavilion

• Holman Field
Administration Building

• Pilgrim Baptist
Church

• St. Mark’s African
Methodist Episcopal
Church
54 Total*
*not listed
due to
space constraints
None • Church of Sts. Joseph
and Mary–Catholic

• Church of St. Francis
Xavier–Catholic

• Yucatan Fort Site

• Traverse des Sioux

• Pipestone Indian
School Superintendent’s
House

• Birch Coulee School

• Lower Sioux Agency

• Inyan Ceyaka Otonwe

• Maka Yusota

• Upper Sioux Agency

• Wood Lake
Battlefield
Historic District
None None
Table 2: Ethnic Heritage categories percentage of the total listings in the National Register in Minnesota.
Ethnic Heritage Asian Black European Hispanic Native American Pacific Islander Other
Total 1 8 54 0 11 0 0
Total % out of 1,766 .06% 0.45% 3% 0% 0.62% 0% 0%

Looking at the census data in 1960, the percentage of Blacks in Minnesota (page 36)  was 0.7% of the population, 0.9% in 1970, and 1.3% in 1976. This is roughly 50 years ago which could be an indicator of the percentage of properties listed in the National Register. One rule of the National Register is that the place must be 50 years or older to be listed, in most cases. Minnesota has some catching up to do if it wants to base representation of listings in the National Register to the population 50 years ago. This type of comparison to the representation of the population 50 years ago does not take into account that the places listed in relation to certain identities should actually be more as history extends earlier than 1960. This comparison also fails to acknowledge the destruction of significant spaces due to Urban Renewal and other public places and systems. As it stands, Minnesota would need to roughly double their listings associated with Black history to reach the 0.7% of the 1960 population identifying as Black.

This comparison to representation within a population is a flawed comparison, but could be a starting point to clarify that representation is not where it should be. The example calculation is for Black identifying people and could also be done for the other population identifiers. This comparison can also be noted as flawed because some places may be listed due to an identity but are not marked as related to an Ethnic Heritage on the nomination form. 

Importance of Representation

Brent Leggs, executive director of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, a part of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, talks on NPR’s Ted Radio Hour about what having more Black sites on the National Register means. 

Making amends means Black Americans are appreciated, that our community is recognized for a 400+ year contribution, that our history and the physical places where the history is held are preserved. Making amends means that our nation is making new investments to address years of disinvestment and inequity. I believe that making amends is to understand that the Black experience is an American Experience.

According to Leggs, on a national scale, of the over 95,000 total entries in the National Register of Historic Places, only 2% focus on African American History. Leggs believes the National Register mirrors social issues of the country. He stated on a national level, officials are working to rectify this inequity. 

In my experience as a reviewer in the Minnesota Historical and Cultural Heritage grant program, working at the Missouri DOT and interning at the Oregon State Historic Preservation Office, places listed due to non-European Ethnic Heritage happen through three avenues: (1) specific advocacy from a person or people towards listing a place; (2) stories that are conveniently tied to European properties; or, (3) the obviously significant places that cannot be ignored. This leaves out places that do not have one of those three avenues to get them listed in the National Register. A couple examples are 470 Hopkins Street in St. Paul, a house used for an exhibit at the Minnesota History Center and 612 E. Summit Ave. Fergus Falls, MN,. The latter is the house of Prince Honeycutt, the town’s first African American, a barber and baseball player. The Honeycutt House was evaluated in 2012 for National Register eligibility and was determined it needed further information to make a determination if it is eligible for listing in the National Register.

Reconcilers

Public entities and organizations are working to reconcile the discrepancy in representation in the National Register. For example, some state historic preservation offices have divisions with a direct mission to represent certain identities such as the Georgia State Historic Preservation Office’s African American Programs and the Black Heritage Council of Alabama. The National Council on Public History recently reported on the importance of reviewing current and past nominations to tell yet untold stories. Some states are listing and updating places that have significance to Native Americans identities including the recently listed Higginbotham Turnpike in Van Buren, TN and advocacy toward renaming a historic district, Indian Village, in Detroit, MI. The National Park Service continues to administer their Underrepresented Community Grants, started in 2014, to diversify “the nominations submitted to the National Register of Historic Places.” This year, they include $750,000 towards 18 projects. In Minnesota the National Register nomination for the Fort Snelling Historic District is also in the process of being updated to reflect the deep history of the Dakota people and the nationally significant story of Dred and Harriet Scott. 

By using existing data and information, the field can come together to advocate for representation of identities whose histories are often not told. This includes using two of the Minnesota Historical and Cultural Heritage Grants administered by the Minnesota Historical Society to reconcile nominations. The National Register grants are for the determination of eligibility for the National Register and writing, updating or revising a National Register Nomination. Feel free to join in this discussion by reaching out to the Minnesota Local History Services with ideas and thoughts.

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