Everett L. Fly

Please tell us about yourself and your current involvement in historic preservation.

I am Everett L. Fly, a licensed landscape architect and licensed architect.  I live in San Antonio, Texas with my wife, Linda.  I have worked for myself in private practice for thirty years, including historic preservation in fifteen states and the District of Columbia.  I am currently working to interpret and place Hobson City, Alabama, on the National Register of Historic Places.  It is the state’s oldest incorporated African American town, at 110 years. In mid-2009 the Hobson City town council asked me to develop an action plan for historic preservation.  My own research and interpretation has revealed that Hobson City was founded to provide African American residents the complete range of civil rights (vote; hold public office; own land; public assembly; education).  In addition, the town maintains one of the oldest African American parks in continuous use in America.  The community also has ties to the Rosenwald School Program from the early twentieth century, and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950 and 1960’s.  I am using National Archives records to interpret the physical evolution of the town and its original boundaries.  I am producing a sourcebook for others who want to learn about and advance the topic of historic African American resources.

What is your background in historic preservation?

Many times in my undergraduate studies I was told that African Americans had not contributed significantly enough to be included in architectural history books and classes.  During my studies at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design (GSD) Professor John Brinckerhoff Jackson challenged me to prepare a term paper on historic Black settlements.  The more I researched, the more I discovered that the assumption of insignificant African American achievements in the built environment was not accurate.

When I graduated from the GSD in 1977 I became the first African American to earn the Master in Landscape Architecture from that institution.   I received a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Fellowship in 1979 that allowed me to research and travel across America.  I learned how broadly and deeply all of America’s cultures are intertwined, especially in the physical environment.   By the time I completed the NEA year I had identified more than 800 African American districts, neighborhoods, settlements, villages and towns in the continental forty eight states. At that point, I had documented and answered my question about achievements of African Americans.  Currently my working list of “Black Settlements” stands at more than 1,200.

I served six years on the City of San Antonio Historic-Design Commission (1988–1994) and six years on the Texas Historical Commission National Register Board of Review (1980–1986).  In 1995 I was elected as a Fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA). At that time I was only the third African American elected as a “Fellow” in the 95 year history of ASLA. The National Park Service National Register includes the “Black Settlements In America” methodology I developed in its “List of Recommended Reading: Guidelines for Evaluating and Documenting Historic Landscapes”.  The Library of Congress “African American Mosaic Exhibit” (2006) featured my work on the Nicodemus, Kansas Historic American Buildings Survey (H.A.B.S.) project (completed in 1983). I served seven years (1994–2001) on the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities as an advisor to President Bill Clinton.  One of my assignments was to work with National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) staff to develop national historic preservation initiatives such as “Save America’s Treasures”. In 2006 I served as leader of a national interdisciplinary team for the African American resort of Idlewild,  Michigan.  Through tedious research I identified authentic documentation from the Michigan State Archives that verified Idlewild land area at more than 3,000 acres, more than twice the original 1976 National Register designation.  I used this information to interpret Idlewild as the largest land-based African American resort in the United States. 

What has been your most rewarding and fulfilling moment in preservation?

My most rewarding experience in historic preservation is more than a “moment”, it is a twenty year relationship cultivated with Eatonville, Florida.  At 120 years of age, Eatonville is the oldest incorporated African American municipality in America. I began working with Preserve the Eatonville Community (PEC) in 1989 when I conducted the original historic resources inventory for the town.  My documentation and interpretation was used as reference for the Eatonville National Register of Historic Places Designation at a national level of significance.  In the past twenty years the citizens and PEC have invited me back to write a historic preservation ordinance; develop cultural tourism programs, strategies, and techniques; present papers at their annual Zora Neale Hurston Festival; and work as a general community advocate.  During the summer of 2008 I participated in on site workshops for one hundred and twenty K-12 teachers from all parts of America who use Zora Neale Hurston’s literature in their classes.  My task was to explain the significance of Eatonville, the physical place, in American history.  I just completed an advisory panel assignment for the update and re-fabrication of PEC’s “Jump at the Sun” exhibit that will be unveiled in January, 2010.

Do you have any professional words of encouragement for fellow preservationists?

I believe the future of historic preservation lies in our ability to help enlighten all Americans.  More emphasis on cross-cultural and interdisciplinary research and interpretation would go a long way to address the challenges we face and strengthen the cause of culture and historic preservation in America.

How has the National Trust made a difference in your immediate community?

I consider America “my community” because I have worked in the nationalarena for more than thirty years.  The National Trust was one of the first major organizations to allow me opportunities to present my work. I was asked to make general session presentation on “Black Settlements In America” at the Trust Annual meeting in New Orleans (1981) and a workshop presentation at the Annual Meeting in San Antonio (1982).  I co-authored a chapter on “Black Settlements In America” in the Trust publication Built in the U.S.A.: American Buildings from Airports to Zoos (1985).   The Trust was a sponsor for the Nicodemus, Kansas Historic American Buildings Survey Project (1983) where I served as co-team leader.  The National Trust National Main Street Center has engaged me as a resource team member in Baltimore, the District of Columbia, New Orleans, and Milwaukee.

Have you successfully engaged young people in your preservation projects? If so, how or what would your recommend?

When I began work on the Hobson City, Alabama preservation strategy I felt it important to involve educational institutions, and their students, in the region.  I established contacts with the Tuskegee University Architecture Department and the Auburn University Landscape Architecture Department for community outreach assistance.  I wanted the students to have the opportunity to be exposed to a part of American history that they would not commonly encounter.  Both groups of students visited Hobson City to meet town officials and citizens, and gather site and historic data.  The Tuskegee students focused on historic architectural resources while the Auburn students concentrated on historic landscape and environmental topics.

Have you successfully engaged young people in your preservation projects? If so, how or what would your recommend?

I believe that the unique historic preservation challenge common to most African American historic sites is twofold:

1. Documentation for African American buildings and places is scattered, fragmented, obscured, and in many cases nonexistent.  It is very difficult to find authentic information, particularly in one location.  Too often the documentation challenge forces researchers to give up and simply propose a general, and local, significance as “African American History.”  But even in the absence of local documents, amazing resources exist in private collections, state archives, the National Archives and the Library of Congress that can help fill in historic puzzles.  I also believe that documentation of the history of the land is just as important as buildings and structures  when researching African American resources.  Human interaction with land and natural resources is one of the most basic forms of cultural expression.

2. Self esteem and respect also present major challenges.  Too often I hear African American communities ask,  “we don’t have a big fancy history—why would anyone be interested in our history?”  This perspective limits community history as locally significant, and only relevant to African Americans.  On the other hand I encounter people who are not African American and casually dismiss ethnic history as a “novelty subculture”, with only thematic significance. This attitude denies the fact that American culture is composed of many intertwined layers that are not separated by national origin or race.

What is the remedy?

The “remedy” is a long term challenge, and is complex and multifaceted.  I believe the future of historic preservation lies in our ability to help enlighten all Americans.  One strategy would involve producing cross-cultural and interdisciplinary educational workshops, field studies, and collaborative projects.  These would go a long way to address challenges and strengthen America and historic preservation.