Three years ago, Historic Athens began to rethink how it carried out its mission, prompting a series of changes for the nonprofit organization. These included a name change from the former Athens-Clarke Heritage Foundation, increased involvement in local grassroots preservation projects and plans to expand its staff capacity.
On Sept. 23, Historic Athens announced that a search for its newest staff member, a director of engagement and African American heritage, had begun — a physical manifestation of a culmination of three years’ work.
During the summer, the organization was awarded a grant through the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, an initiative that brings attention and aid to the preservation of sites with significance to the African American community.
The fund also helps organizations like Historic Athens that seek to preserve African American history in their respective communities, according to the initiative’s associate director, Tiffany Tolbert.
“We’re very fortunate and very happy to be able to put these funds on the ground across the country,” Tolbert said.
Hundreds of letters of intent are received from various sites and organizations every year, which Tolbert said is due to the “deficiency” in preservation of sites connected to communities of color both inside and outside of the preservation field.
In Historic Athens’ letter, a full-time staff position focused on continuing the organization’s goal of African American cultural heritage preservation in Athens was outlined, leaving the team behind the initiative impressed.
Tolbert said showcasing how the position would fit into the fabric of the organization, even going so far as to consider its long-term strategic role, helped the application stand out. She said it also emphasized how organizations not exclusively focused on African American history can contribute to the progression of the preservation field, a sentiment that Historic Athens executive director Tommy Valentine also shares.
“Organizations like ours, around the United States, have an obligation not to just present their own favorite narrative, but to adequately preserve the places and stories and recipes and neighborhoods that give a town its unique culture and characteristics,” Valentine said.
Despite Historic Athens’ extensive involvement in the Athens community, which spans more than 50 years, the organization is run by a staff of only three employees with Valentine at the head of the operation.
Some of Valentine’s duties will be absorbed by whoever fills the role, allowing the director of engagement and African American heritage to act as a temporary executive director, ready to fill the shoes of the executive director whenever deemed necessary.
This role reversal wouldn’t be able to take place for two years, as the new position does not currently have a permanent place within the organization.
The funds from the grant will sustain the first year of the position, according to Valentine, but ultimately, the position’s longevity lies within the hands of the Athens community, something of which he is not worried about.
Valentine believes the growing consensus that history cannot be told without the acknowledgement of Black history — comparing it to the idea of missing chapters in a book — indicates that the town is ready to receive the new staff member.
“We’re very hopeful that the Athens community will support this ongoing effort to make a permanent commitment to celebrating and conserving African American heritage here in Athens, Georgia,” Valentine said.