Over the past two years, in presentation after presentation, I have confessed that I am a recent convert to the importance of preservation in my professional life as an academic and public historian. As with far too many of my generation’s academic historians, historic preservation, its importance to the nation’s heritage notwithstanding, was until recently not a pursuit or passion.1 As time has passed, and I have joined historically-minded colleagues on the Advisory Council for Historic Preservation and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, I have given thought to the deeper meaning of how, in subtle ways, the power of place, and a personal interest in preserving places and memories dear to me have shaped my and my contemporaries’ scholarship on the making and remaking of the nation.
Personal evolution has thus enabled me to connect the rhythms and changes in historical scholarship to historic preservation. I suspect that is probably not unusual. The past, in all of its complexities and ambiguities, is gradually revealed to us over time, hardly in one fell swoop. As we age, becoming more emotionally mature and intellectually sophisticated, we are able to take on more of history’s informative powers. We are better able to complicate the past, examining it through multiple lenses and from different, sometimes conflicting perspectives. This is especially true for readers, for those who travel the American landscape, and for those whose public and private lives are marked by diverse experiences and associations. As our ability to complicate our lives matures over time, building upon our storehouses of memory, we become, in a sense, historic preservationists by default.2
My journey to the presence of the past and the power of place, not unlike that of many others, begins with the oldest person in my family, my maternal grandmother, Lillian White Spann. She was born in Sumter, S.C., in 1888. She died in 1992, at the age of 104, [End Page 23] in Columbia, S.C. Her formal education did not extend beyond primary school. She was raised, not by her parents, about whom very little is remembered, but by Miss White, who apparently adopted her. From all that I have heard, and from all that I remember of her through the lens of my youth and early adulthood as a graduate student in American history, she was well-raised. That is to say, she was placed on a path that enabled her to survive, to take care of her heath, and to become the veritable matriarch of a remarkable American family.
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I interviewed my grandmother in her home in Columbia in 1974. Because she was born in South Carolina at the end of the 19th century, in her youth my grandmother was surrounded by those who knew of slavery and of the dawning opportunities and challenges of the Great Emancipation. Those who surrounded her young life knew also of the hemmed-in world of segregation. Their lives unfolded during what was a stark period. That mattered to me, for as a historian I knew that slavery’s legacy was tenacious and that freedom, though preferable to enslavement, was bittersweet. What also mattered over the years when my life crossed hers was her home, at 1010 Oak Street in Columbia. The elder family members called it Big Mama’s House (long before a film of [End Page 24] that name existed) and passed along to their children that honorific place name, which made us all appreciate old places and how such places gave meaning to being an extended family.
A New Recognition for Big Mama’s House
The historic preservation movement has now caught up with Big Mama’s House. Though it is unlikely that 1010 Oak Street will ever make any credible list of historically significantly places, a new sensibility abounds within the historic preservation movement that is at once important and transformative. When we consider what...