Imperiled and overlooked Black historic sites lead the National Trust’s 11 Most Endangered list in 2021

A Call to Action

Imperiled and overlooked Black historic sites lead the National Trust’s 11 Most Endangered list in 2021

A hotspot for blues musicians and Black travelers passing through the Mississippi Delta region during the Jim Crow era, the Riverside Hotel is one of the latest sites to be added to the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places program. (Jai Williams/Courtesy the National Trust for Historic Preservation)

While the 2021 edition of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s annual 11 Most Endangered Historic Places List isn’t as mid-century hotel-heavy as last year’s (which, among other imperiled sites, included a flamboyantly outfitted Mississippi motor lodge with links to the civil rights movement and a Natalie de Bois-designed International-style high-rise in downtown Cincinnati), there is indeed a lone lodging establishment that made the cut.

First established in 1944 by Mrs. Z.L. Ratcliffe as a boarding house for Black lodgers at the site of the old G.T. Thomas Afro-American Hospital on Sunflower Avenue, the Riverside Hotel along the Mississippi Blues Trail was one of the only lodgings in the entire state that catered to non-white travelers during the Jim Crow era. Due to its pivotal location along the state’s famed Blues Trail, the Green Book-listed Riverside Hotel hosted a multitude of famed blues musicians traveling through the Delta including, among others, Ike Turner, Robert Nighthawk, Muddy Waters, Sam Cooke, Howlin’ Wolf, Duke Ellington, and Sonny Boy Williamson.

As noted by the National Trust, the hotel, owned outright by the Ratcliffe family since 1957, quite literally stands as one of the birthplaces of rock and roll. The Riverside, which is the only remaining Black-owned hotel with deep ties to blues history in the city of Clarksville,  has been non-operational since it was severely damaged by a major storm in April 2020. Current owner Joyce L. Ratcliffe and her daughter Zee Ratcliff are seeking help in the form of partnerships and outside funding to repair and reopen the 20-room property as both a place of respite for weary travelers and a living history museum-slash-shrine dedicated to its legendary past lodgers.

an older run-down home with a blue car parked outside
An old march campsite along Alabama’s Selma to Montgomery Historic Trail. (Cheryl Gardner Davis/Courtesy the National Trust for Historic Preservation)

“These 11 Most Endangered Historic Places demonstrate that the act of preservation is a powerful form of activism itself that makes a tangible difference in the way we understand ourselves as a nation,” said Katherine Malone-France, the Trust’s Chief Preservation Officer, in a statement announcing this year’s list, which can be viewed in full at the bottom of this page.

“The stories told by each of these 11 places demonstrate that our history is often not simple or easy, but it is always powerful,” she added. “That is why saving and stewarding these places and their stories is so important. They help us more accurately define who we are as a people, recognize our intricate cultural connections with each other, and inspire us to work together to build a more just and equitable future.”

an abandoned filling station building
The Threatt Filling Station in Luther, Oklahoma. (Rhys Martin/Courtesy the National Trust for Historic Preservation)

Notably, the Riverside Hotel is one of several sites—seven in total—selected for the 2021 11 Most Endangered list that tells a vital, singular story of the Black American experience. These stories, and others, are at risk of fading away so long as the sites themselves remain at risk due of disappearing due to neglect, abandonment, new development, climate change, economic uncertainty, and simply the hands of time. They include:

  • A pair of family-owned farms that served as key march camp sites long Alabama’s Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail.
  • The Georgia B. Williams Nursing Home, a now-abandoned facility in Camilla, Georgia, where Black midwife Beatrice Borders and her assistants delivered thousands of babies during an era when expectant mothers of color in the rural South had very few, if any, places to turn for professional, compassionate care.
  • Morningstar Tabernacle No. 88 Order of Moses Cemetery and Hall, a historic Black burial ground established in Cabin John, Maryland, in 1885 that was partially wiped out during a 1960s-era highway construction project and is at renewed threat by a planned expansion of the Capital Beltway.
  • The historic Detroit home of civil rights activist Sarah Elizabeth Ray who, among with her husband, opened a community hub center on the city’s east side in 1967. Called Action House,  the center was founded to “stabilize their neighborhood, promote racial tolerance, and enrich the lives of local children,” per the National Trust.
  • Luther, Oklahoma’s Threatt Filling Station and Family Farm, which was the only known Black-owned and operated gas station along historic Route 66 during the Jim Crow era and reportedly served as a safe haven for those who survived and fled nearby Tulsa following a devastating outbreak of racial violence that leveled Greenwood, a prosperous Black neighborhood, a century ago.
  • Pine Grove Elementary School, a two-room structure erected in 1917 as a Rosenwald School for Black students in rural Cumberland County, Virginia, that served as a “center for education, programs, and Civil Rights activities during the era of segregation” according to the Trust. After the school ceased functioning in 1964, it was saved twice by Black community leaders and school alumni and their descendants. Sadly, the historic school is under threat again by the planned construction of a massive landfill facility that would be located within a thousand feet of the school.
an abandoned building with a caved-in porch
The Georgia B. Williams Nursing Home in Camilla, Georgia. (Rebbecca Fenwick/Courtesy the National Trust for Historic Preservation)

As evidenced by the photos, the structures themselves, some outright abandoned and others in various states of disrepair, are in urgent need of rehabilitation before they can potentially be transformed into publicly accessible historic sites.

The National Trust proudly noted that less than five percent of the more than 300 sites that have appeared on the 11 Most Endangered List in its 34-year history have been lost given that the program functions as an awareness-raising call to action. The fate of the Thompson Center, a postmodern governmental complex in downtown Chicago designed by the late Helmut Jahn and included by the Trust in its 2019 list, has been of particularly intense interest as of late.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 11 Most Endangered Places 2021

Selma to Montgomery March Camp Sites — Selma, Alabama

Summit Tunnels 6 & 7 and Summit Camp Site — Truckee, California

Trujillo Adobe — Riverside, California

Georgia B. Williams Nursing Home — Camilla, Georgia

Morningstar Tabernacle No.88 Order of Moses Cemetery and Hall — Cabin John, Maryland

Boston Harbor Islands — Boston

Sarah E. Ray House — Detroit

The Riverside Hotel — Clarksdale, Mississippi

Threatt Filling Station and Family Farm — Luther, Oklahoma

Oljato Trading Post — San Juan County, Utah

Pine Grove Elementary School — Cumberland, Virginia