Saying America has a troubled relationship with the land it seized from Indigenous people would be an understatement. Colonialism, and the taking of land through force and murder, defined the country’s borders. The struggle over terrain continues today with the threat of climate change, an increase in internal migration, and the soaring cost of housing.

Jocelyn Imani, a trained historian from Nashville, Tennessee, is tasked with preserving the parts of U.S. land that are of significance to Black American history and culture. In May, she was named the first Black history and culture director of the Trust for Public Land, one of the country’s largest nonprofit groups focused on creating and maintaining local and national parks and historical districts. 

Imani has her work cut out for her. Since 1972, TPL has led more than 5,000 conservation projects, spanning 3 million acres of land in the United States, but Black history has been largely absent from the work of land preservation. 

The federal government has identified 2 million sites worthy of preservation since the founding of the National Historic Preservation Act in the 1960s. However, just 2% of the preserved locations focus on the experiences of Black Americans. Due to racial and economic biases, sites exemplifying white history have routinely met the standards for preservation, while Black sites have long been excluded from consideration.

Black land preservation sites include Brown Chapel AME Church, the starting point for the Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965; Little Rock Central High School, one of the first major battles over school desegregation; and the Martin Luther King Historic District in Atlanta. 

Many sites that would merit historical designations have been destroyed and actively erased through arson and targeted violence. Others have failed to meet the “architectural significance” criteria outlined by the National Historic Landmarks Program. Black historical communities and buildings have long been excluded because they were too “modest” and lacked the architectural and physical stability to receive landmark status. 

Historic landmark designations are not just about how and what we remember about our past; they often work to alter a community’s future. They signal to all levels of government and industry that a community is “worthy” of investment. Often, landmark designations lead to thousands, if not millions, of dollars being pumped into communities for new streets, improved housing and even increased policing. 

But these investments can lead to adverse effects in Black and brown communities. There have been dozens of examples across the country of land preservation leading to higher costs of living and the pushing out of long-time residents.

On the heels of the 2020 racial justice protest, Imani hopes to save as many Black sites as she can. Capital B caught up with Imani to understand more about the need to memorialize Blackness today. The interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Capital B: What drew you to your new role at the Trust for Public Land and the idea of enshrining history at this specific time? 

Jocelyn Imani: I come from a whole family. It’s important to understand that I have a professional life, but before we get to my professional life, I come from regular working class, churchgoing Black folks. We’re a Great Migration family. So at this point, we’ve spread to about 20-25 states now. That means I’ve been meaning-making and storytelling within the Black community my whole life. Coming out of church knowing you got to find out what your gift is — what’s your output to make the world better — starts at an early age. 

I found that all stories matter, history matters, and telling our stories in a way that reflects us back to ourselves in the highest light matters. We’re in a world that twists the reflection back at us to the lowest common denominator. So for me, the [Trust for Public Land] piece was an opportunity to merge worlds because I come from history, I worked in public lands, I worked in government, and I worked at a museum. All these things, but they’re always so segmented and bifurcated versus all of them working together. 

I believe there is a difference in people’s minds when thinking about preserving Black sites. There are contemporary cultural sites, maybe in the last 100 years, like Motown, but when we think of more historical, particularly natural areas, many of those places harbored dark secrets and Black death. How are you reconciling with that and choosing which you want to focus on early on in this position?

I think it’s important to back up, just in terms of the landscape. Only 2% of the 95,000 sites on the national register are Black stories — 2%. That’s it, that’s all. So even before we can get to the conversation of the diversity of stories and what stories we are telling, our stories are not there; they’re not institutionalized. 

Jocelyn Imani is the Black History and Culture director for the nonprofit Trust for Public Land.

But then to the next level, once we get on a path, we can figure out what stories are told. For me, the number one driving factor is the self-determination and agency of Black people in Black communities. How do I highlight Black folks who work for themselves? Because that is the story. We’ve been conserving land; we’ve been doing urban agriculture, rural agriculture. We’ve been building institutions, teaching, and doing all of these things across the landscape that are now the new hot things like sustainability. We’ve been doing sustainability. But those stories get lost in the shuffle because nobody’s telling our stories.

So even if we want to tell a dark story, a tragedy, for me, it’s, “Where’s the self-determination?” For example, we’ve worked with the George Floyd Memorial Garden and we also worked with the Philando Castile Peace Memorial. Those are stories of horrible Black death, but for me, the triumph is in the agency of the communities that rallied around and advocated for themselves. 

It sounds like community movements are behind your work’s focus. Is it a goal to follow communities that are advocating for themselves? 

For [the Trust for Public Land], community is at the heart of everything we do as an organization. We’re celebrating 50 years of our existence, and we’ve been about land for people and communities for 50 years. Fun tidbit: When I was interviewing for this job, somebody let it slip casually that we worked with the Black Panther Party, and I said, “Hold up, record scratch.”

Sure enough, I’m blessed to have a lot of elders who are original Panthers, and I called one of them out of Oakland. And I said, “Hey, have you ever heard of the Trust for Public Land?” and she said, “Oh, yeah, I remember them, and I remember we did something in Oakland.”

So, we’ve been doing this community work. It’s just a matter of now championing communities to own their own stories and harnessing them in a better way.

When thinking about community, there are many movements around in places like Los Angeles, Houston, and Chicago working to block sites and landmarks from becoming added to the registry because of fears of residents being pushed out due to a rise in economic values of communities. Is gentrification due to Black land preservation something you are trying to combat?

How do we support communities without being colonial in our impact? That thread is part of the conversation that we are having with activists. To the point of this fear of preserving and codifying historical sites and that driving gentrification, I think that’s where two things have to happen. One, there has to be political and communal education. This goes both ways in terms of TPL listening to these communities. Then, from TPL’s perspective, there must be an understanding of why it is an advantage to make something a historic site versus what real estate would look like if you don’t make it a historic site. 

The second piece is that we have to have good faith conversations: honest, ongoing, and engaging conversations about not just about preserving the land but caring about how it impacts the people. 

Are there any sites you’re working on right now that combine those community-centered approaches? 

The next awesome thing I will do is visit Nicodemus, Kansas. I think that’s a story we all should know. It’s one of the oldest Black towns that was free during the antebellum period. When folks were fleeing the South, they went to the middle of the state and made this place the oldest continually operating Black town. We’ll be helping to support their homecoming celebration that has been going on for like 100 years.

Adam Mahoney is the climate and environment reporter at Capital B. Twitter @AdamLMahoney