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First African-American Church Revived

It took six years and $9.5 million to move Boston’s African Meeting House back 157 years in time: to 1855 when design changes were made, at the height of the abolition movement, to the structure built 49 years earlier by a community of free blacks. In addition to restoring the quiet elegance of the 19th-century interior—matching the hand-wrought curve of the pews, returning the walls to a warm hue and much more—a number of crucial infrastructure improvements were made.

The Meeting House’s look now matches its history: the first African-American church in the nation that still stands, the site of speeches by Frederick Douglass, the place where the New England Anti-Slavery Society formed in 1832. “Anyone who walked into this space before the restoration would wonder where they were—fluorescent lights, covered windows,” says Beverly Morgan-Welch, executive director of the Museum of African American History, which operates the Meeting House. “Now I think it’s breathtakingly beautiful. The history absolutely calls out to you.”

Civil Rights Icon Gets Late Birthday Present

Edith Lee-Payne, above, celebrated her 12th birthday by attending the 1963 March on Washington, where she was photographed holding a souvenir pennant. Although the image achieved iconic status, Lee-Payne didn’t know about it for more than 40 years. Over that time she has been involved with social issues in her native Detroit, and says the photo is “confirmation that this is what I was destined to do.”

Leave It to Beavers

Every school kid knows beavers are busy, but who knew they’ve enriched the American landscape for hundreds of years? Beaver dams slow water flow and create nutrientrich sediment deposits that support a greater diversity of species. The deposits also help prevent dead zones and health hazards downstream by filtering the water. One recent study quantified beaver-based sediment in two Colorado valleys, and another demonstrated how beaver dams spur the creation of wetlands and wet meadows. Says Colorado State geology professor Ellen Wohl, a co-author of both papers, “Ecologists call beavers ‘ecosystem engineers.’ ”

Oklahoma Pays Homage to Woody Guthrie

Oklahoma was always OK for native son Woody Guthrie, but Oklahoma has not always been OK with the composer of such classic folk tunes as “This Land Is Your Land.” So the recent $3 million sale of the Guthrie archives by his heirs for a new museum in Tulsa represents a kind of reconciliation. As recently as 1999, the leftist activities of Guthrie, who died in 1967, spurred the cancellation of an exhibit in Oklahoma City. “His politics will remain controversial in some corners,” says University of Tulsa history professor Brian Hosmer, who organized a recent symposium marking Guthrie’s 100th birthday, “but there is a great deal of pride that’s being expressed that was absent for many years.”

Natchez Unearths Civil War–Era Throne Room

Stuff happens, euphemistically speaking, but in 1859 the pleasure of flushing it away belonged only to a very few, very well-heeled folks. So the Natchez National Historical Park in Mississippi jumped at the rare chance to get a bathroom ensemble—toilet, basin, tub, shower (with a 16-inch head!)— from a grand old house in Natchez. “When people hear about this, they say, ‘What?’” says Jeff Mansell, historian at the park. “Then they say, ‘That’s so cool!’”

Beverly Hills Saves Its Historic Architecture

Prompted by the near-razing of architect Richard Neutra’s Kronish House, below, a modernist landmark, the Beverly Hills, Calif., city council passed an ordinance to protect architectural treasures.

Preservationists Target Pullman Company Town

Hard times make for hard preservation. Even a historically significant place like the southeast Chicago neighborhood of Pullman, once a company town that 19th-century railroad car magnate George Pullman hoped would stand as a national model of order and efficiency, needs all the help it can get. But lately a broad-based effort has begun to pay off. The City of Chicago has pledged to rehabilitate 49 rowhouses. The State of Illinois has continued to restore two local icons: the Hotel Florence and the Clock Tower and Administration Building. And U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. will introduce legislation that could turn Pullman into a national park.

Few factory spaces where Pullman made a fortune building railway cars still stand, but several hundred residential structures he built for his employees do. That housing was at the epicenter of one of the country’s first national strikes, which began when the autocratic Pullman reacted to the Panic of 1893 by cutting worker-tenants’ wages but not their rents. When sympathetic unionists throughout the rail system joined in, President Grover Cleveland called in federal troops to quash the labor revolt and 13 strikers were killed.

Working to preserve Pullman’s considerable achievements in architecture and town planning has been a roller-coaster ride. Compared to efforts 30 years ago, “we’ve lost some ground,” says Michael Shymanski, president of the Historic Pullman Foundation, “but the synergy that’s developing right now is very promising.”


Originally published in the June 2012 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.