A Passion for Preservation: A Conversation with April Johnson

DCRP’s Lucia Constantine recently sat down with April Johnson, the new Executive Director of Preservation Durham. In her interview, Johnson shares her vision for Preservation Durham and her passion for preservation.

Why is historic preservation important?

We believe buildings are important – they are our communal artifacts and the city doesn’t have to be a museum but buildings tell the story of where we were and where we’re going. And in many cases, they are very beautiful so they add to the aesthetic value of a place and therefore should be preserved.

Did you grow up in a place with a lot of historic buildings?

I did. I grew up in a small city called Goldsboro, North Carolina. And growing up our downtown wasn’t it wasn’t as vibrant as it is now. It’s kind of more vibrant now. But around the downtown there would be these big huge Victorian beautiful houses and a lot of them will be dilapidated or vacant, and I just always dreamed about them I always dreamed of what it would look like if they were just fixed up and repainted.  I dreamed about those buildings – I wanted to own them, I wanted to live in them and I wanted to take care of them but didn’t see that as a career and my siblings or friends thought I was crazy to look at this old building that was rundown and think it was beautiful.

April Johnson, Executive Director of Preservation Durham, Photo Credit: Preservation Durham

Can you describe what Preservation Durham does?

We are a local historic preservation nonprofit organization and our mission is to advocate, educate and take action around preserving Durham’s historic assets whether it’s buildings or culture.

What is unique about Durham’s historical assets?

For Durham, what makes it unique is that it had the tobacco industry and we also had a thriving Black economic community at the time. We were one of the nation’s Black Wall Streets and the African Americans during the Jim Crow era were able to build big business for themselves. They built their own insurance companies, their banks and to the point here in Durham were almost every business was that they needed was owned by an African Americans, so they didn’t have to experience a lot of racial misconduct from other stores. They were motivated enough to be able to build that for themselves.

Could you talk a little bit about the work you did to document all the African American heritage sites?

So in 2009, Preservation Durham submitted a grant application to the National Trust for Historic Preservation to identify and document African American History resources that have been overlooked or that people felt wasn’t widely known.

That process was long but it was it was interesting and fun. I got to talk to a lot of different people, be introduced to community leaders and their family members to help me tell stories and to find information to figure out where are the missing stories, who are the people that we haven’t talked to and what are the communities that they haven’t been documented. So I wanted to find those other heroes that continue the legacy of black Wall Street and talk about those people

What came out of that project?

One of the things that came out of it was documenting the College Heights neighborhood. That neighborhood has been assigned a specialist to do the National Register nomination for the project for that particular neighborhood. And now it will be listed on the National Register for Historic Places. So that was a great outcome of that project.

Could you tell me what’s significant about that neighborhood?

College Heights is a community built around North Carolina State University, which is a historic African American black college. And so that neighborhood developed around the university. A lot of movers and shakers and lawmakers and professors and teachers and business people came out of that community. So it gained its historic, its significance based on its architecture of that time based on the people and events and the culture.

I know that historic preservation is sometimes pitted against affordable housing, particularly when people are looking to create historical districts. How do you navigate that tension?

That’s a tough one. Because I don’t know if we have that much control, the market kind of tells you how much they want to pay. And if a community is growing and higher income people are moving in, it’s even more difficult. But there are ways and tools that we try to apply by subsidizing rehabilitation projects in a way that it can be done affordably. I think those are the questions I want to answer; I want to figure out how we allow people to remain in historic homes in an affordable way.

Are there any models of cities that are doing that successfully?

There are models but again it’s about how do you find funding to help offset some of the costs that it takes to rehab a historic building.

We’re working on a project called Preservation Equity. And what that project aims to do is help people who are living in a historic house that needs repair work done or rehabilitation to their property but they can’t afford to do it. A lot of times they’re getting calls and being contacted by speculative buyer and they may be tempted sell and relieve themselves of the trouble but many people want to stay in their homes. And so we provide some funding to help with rehab costs to maintain a house.

And what role do you see historic preservation playing in creating an inclusive and diverse city?

Historic preservation already plays that role. It’s about telling the story of the building. So in this building [Liggett Myers] we can think about who owned the building – they were the industry giants here and they typically white men, but what happened to black men? Were they able to build a huge industrial company that passed down from generation to generation to generation? Typically black people were just just the labors and they didn’t get paid as much as the other white laborers so you can talk about the socioeconomic differences between people who worked in one building. You can talk about all kinds of things that went on in a building that give you a sense of the wider history.

What are some other ways you might signal the history for people who don’t already know it?

Sometimes the buildings have plaques or markers around him. Sometimes there’s art with some type of sculpture art around with some type of message about a specific event. Other than that, I think it’s going to take people being inquisitive. We also have a website called Open Durham where you can look at old buildings and see see their evolution and then see their stories written in blog form. And we now allow people to upload photos and tell the story of your family’s house or a building in town. We also do tours every Saturday – they’re free and open to the public. There are lots of ways for people to learn more about what’s around them.

What are you hoping to accomplish as Executive Director?

I hope to continue spreading the message that preservation is relevant today and to help people understand that you love historic buildings whether you know it or not because everyone loves interesting buildings. This is why we travel to other countries, because we love the culture we love the richness and we love the buildings because they provide all of that richness that we’re looking for. So my goal is to figure out how do we continue to make our communities interesting and unique? I hope people will want to work with us to protect our buildings.

Featured Image: The former Liggett & Myers Tobacco Company building in downtown Durham. Photo credit: Preservation Durham

April Johnson is the new Executive Director of Preservation Durham, a local nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting Durham’s historic assets through action, advocacy and education. Johnson grew up in Goldsboro, North Carolina and has always been interested in old buildings but didn’t know she could make a career out of it until a fateful conversation with an economics professor who encouraged her to explore urban planning. Before coming to Preservation Durham, Johnson worked as a historic preservation planner in Winston-Salem and Charlottesville.

About the Author: Lucia Constantine is a second-year master’s student in the Department of City and Regional Planning. Her planning interests include immigrant integration into cities and inclusive economic development. Prior to coming to UNC, Lucia worked in higher education and nonprofits. She likes listening to podcasts, baking with alternative grains, and taking unreasonable walks.