UK researchers investigate racial bias in recognition of Kentucky’s historic properties


LEXINGTON, Ky. (March 17, 2023) — A team of University of Kentucky researchers is analyzing the list of historic places and properties registered in the Commonwealth to find any gaps in cultural minority representations.

Yuha Jung, Ph.D., an associate professor and the director of graduate studies of the Department of Arts Administration in the College of Fine Arts, is the principal investigator in the nearly $75,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

“I’m interested in how some of the lists of important historic properties in the country, like the National Register of Historic Places, lack properties from cultures that have been historically minoritized," Jung said. “Currently the register disproportionately reflects more dominant white American culture and history more than other racial and ethnic minorities. The register should be about all American history.”

The National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) is the official list of the nation's historic buildings, structures, districts, objects and archeological sites worthy of preservation. It was established by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. The program is maintained by the National Park Service (NPS) and administered in partnership with state historic preservation offices in each U.S. state and territory.

“The world is different now than in the 1960s when the NRHP was first established,” Jung said. “It’s time to scrutinize the existing process to see how it has maybe unknowingly determined some properties as less historically valuable because of their affiliation with specific cultural groups, so those aren’t preserved. We’re trying to avoid that moving forward and recognize the history of all Americans, not just that of the dominant group.”

To first understand the gaps in preservation, researchers use a computer-based keyword mining process where a computer code automatically searches over 95,000 PDF files of approved applications downloaded from the NPS website.

Thanks to a small seed grant from the UNited In True racial Equity (UNITE) Research Priority Area (RPA) for a pilot study, the team initially categorized the registered sites into different racial and ethnic historical areas to map preservation gaps against historical and current census data.

In the initial data output for Kentucky, researchers found 5% of the state’s more than 3,400 sites were labeled as Black heritage. The same percentage is true of Lexington’s nearly 170 listed sites with just nine in areas related to Black culture. However, the most recent census data shows 8.5% of Kentuckians are Black or African American, and historical data shows approximately 25% were during the Civil War era.

“After the Civil War in Kentucky, we had a large Black population but where is their history represented?” Jung said. “We want to know quantitatively what the gaps are. Then, we can address the issue and see what can be done moving forward.”

Jung is also working with Daniel Vivian, Ph.D., an associate professor and the director of the undergraduate certificate in historic preservation in the College of Design. Vivian, an expert in historic preservation, serves as a co-principal investigator in the study and will help collect and analyze the data, using his experience working at the NRHP. The team will continue to investigate the makeup of Kentucky’s registered sites.

Jung and Vivian are partnering with other UK colleagues to tackle the project. Valentinos Zachariou, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the neuroscience department in the College of Medicine, wrote the computer code to sift through the PDFs.

“Issues like this are big and complex. They can’t be solved by one perspective or one person,” said Jung. “We need different perspectives to look at any gaps from different viewpoints and methodologies to come up with a solution fitting the complexity of the problem.”

The second half of the project focuses on identifying any obstacles and finding ways to streamline the process of becoming registered historical sites. Jung and the team will choose eight historical sites of minority cultures for analysis, four locations currently listed and four that could be listed but are not.

Researchers will also interview people closely connected to those properties, including owners, managers, community members and historic preservation experts who are familiar with those properties, to better understand the obstacles groups face in the process and why properties from minority cultures are less likely to be represented.

“We know it’s a long, expensive process with several hoops to jump through. Often you need a historian to document the cultural or historical significance. You need resources and connections to understand the processes and interpret what’s required for the application,” Jung said.

The Kentucky Heritage Council (KHC) is a partner in the project. It serves as the State Historic Preservation Office and is responsible for managing sites across the Commonwealth. KHC plans to use the findings to expand the list of protected properties and create a practical solution to help represent all facets of the state’s history.

Jung hopes this collaborative research will lead to a larger, second-tier grant from the NEH to take a closer look at underrepresentation across the country and find a way to make the process more inclusive and equitable. She is encouraging other researchers in the arts and humanities to find and apply for similar grant opportunities.

“I’ve been working toward this and have many, many failed applications out there, so I’m happy to earn this one. It’s meaningful to me,” Jung said. “I think the collaboration at UK makes a huge difference. We don’t have to be limited to certain types of research or certain types of funding. You are extending what you do by collaborating. My background in arts administration certainly helps, being an interdisciplinary field, so it just makes sense for us to do that.”

Mapping the Gaps of the National Register of Historic Places has been made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Democracy demands wisdom. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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