‘Iowa can’t wait’: Historic preservationist Matthew Gilbert on the power of place and the urgency to save Black buildings

Matthew Gilbert — courtesy photo

Matthew Gilbert’s great grandfather, Dr. Lee Burton Furgerson, is an Iowa legend. He was one of the first Black doctors in Waterloo. He contributed to the Iowa Bystander, the state’s leading Black publication. He joined prominent civil rights attorney Milton Fields and Judge William Parker in co-founding a Black bank in 1947 called Blackhawk Savings and Loan Association.

In the late ’80s, the building that housed that bank was demolished.

“They tore it down and turned it into a parking garage,” Gilbert said. “What’s in place of it is a mural, but it doesn’t speak to the story.”

“We talk about the power of place and the power of belonging, and often Black and brown people don’t really have that experience, even just walking through their own neighborhoods.”

Gilbert is a licensed attorney, the chair of the Economic Development Committee for the Des Moines NAACP, president of the nonprofit Iowa Center for Opportunity Resources & Equity Inc. and CEO of MRG & Associates LLP, among other nonprofit, private sector and public service positions.

But Gilbert’s dedication to Iowa history is put to work on the Waterloo Historic Preservation Commission, where he feels a responsibility to preserve more than just architecture.

“More importantly, [we’re] helping communities find a voice at the table when it comes to planning and the protection of buildings, properties and neighborhoods,” he said in an interview with Little Village.

“It’s really important to help Black and brown Americans understand and see themselves as a part of American history.”

Some answers have been edited for length and clarity.

How did you become involved with historic preservation efforts?

The history of Iowa has been such a huge part of my life and my journey of discovering who I am. A lot of my family has been very integral as pioneers of Iowa’s history, especially through civil rights here in Iowa. Part of it was a passion and a love, and another part of it was being trained with the skill sets to really navigate this arena for the voices that are often unheard.

What are some of the things you have learned since joining the Waterloo Historic Preservation Commission?

One of the first things I learned is how much influence and power certified local governments (CLGs) really have. Secondly, I learned that I have to be an advocate in this role, otherwise I’m doing many communities a disservice. Being an advocate really means showing up, not just for my own interests but to show up for the interests of those who may be unable to show up … making sure I found a gateway so the community had a sense of historic preservation literacy and language, but is also “in the know” about what’s going on, good or bad.

What would you like to tell the readers of Little Village about the significance of historic preservation efforts and why it can help lead to a more just and equitable future?

This historic preservation movement is not new, but there is new thought capital that is being added to historic preservation, especially after going through a pandemic and then the racial reckoning that we’ve been having since the murder of George Floyd. To really find a more inclusive narrative, the historic preservation movement is paying more attention not just to the buildings but who the buildings serve, what the buildings’ uses are.

Sometimes it’s ugly when it comes to city planning, local government. White wealth and privilege oftentimes shows up in the tax subsidies on the public side and it shows up in philanthropic or generational wealth on the private side. What ends up happening is we’ll take private wealth, mix it with subsidies, and we’ll spend all that money to restore and preserve the building—the structural elements—but leave no money for the underlying programming. I’m thankful to the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the African-American Cultural Heritage Fund, because there’s been a lot of shift to not just caring about the structures but also how the structures are being used. Now it’s challenging developers and government officials to think deeper when it relates to historic preservation projects.

What are some of the historic sites and landmarks you are involved with that you’re passionate about?

The historic Walnut Street Baptist Church in Waterloo is an exciting architectural structure, and also a potentially big catalyst opportunity for the city. The property is already listed on the National Register, but for a 10-year period was unoccupied until a developer in the area came in and wanted to see the property preserved. They’ve been putting together efforts for the last two years and brought me in to navigate some of the community discussion.

Another project is the Furgerson-Fields landmark designation. Dr. [Lee Burton] Furgerson and attorney [Milton] Fields were prominent African-American leaders in the Waterloo area. Dr. Furgerson passed away in his early 40s, so he didn’t get a chance to see his legacy all the way through. As a result of that, they wanted to name a park after Dr. Furgerson, who shared an office with Milton Fields. … What we’re doing is storytelling, because that story is so deep, especially for the Waterloo and Black Hawk County area. I’m excited about getting that park designated as a national landmark to tell the story of Furgerson, Fields and [Judge William] Parker.

What is the status of that effort?

We’re still at the early stages of that project. In 2019, a colleague of mine, Amanda Loughlin out of the Kansas City area, worked on an Iowa Civil Rights inventory between 2017 and 2018 and was able to put together a multi-property designation application which proved to the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the National Parks Service that there is a significance for Iowa’s civil rights history. We need to tell not only the story of places, we need to tell the story of events and the story of significant people that were involved with this history. It offers us a broad approach to identifying multiple properties, whether it be recreational properties or structural properties that relate to this history. … Often these are grassroots efforts, such as the Dunsmore House, which is one of the first structural buildings in Waterloo. It has gone through a bit of damage and destruction. We want to coordinate a shared group to plan the reuse and purpose of this property.

Matthew Gilbert — courtesy photo

What do you consider to be some of the biggest barriers in trying to achieve this movement in historic preservation?

It starts from local policy and development practices. Sometimes we are in favor of demolishing buildings before we have even done a historic analysis of the property. It’s easier for a city council to sign off with a developer who comes in with a big bag of money and says, “Hey, I want to do this,” and the council says, “Yeah, we like that idea. Bring us your money,” before they do the inventory and the heavy-lifting it requires to understand more about buildings and structures in a particular locale.

Some of the standards and practices around surveying properties still perpetuate exclusion of Black and brown heritage, especially here in Iowa. We’ve allowed cities and governments and developers to tear down buildings without requiring them to do some level of cultural or historical assessment. We do environmental studies before we build on a property for liability purposes, so we could approach this the same [way]: to make developers hire local historians to help them better understand the narratives and require them to report that as part of their underlying project.

The process of nominations and designations is a hard one and expensive that requires extensive resources. Having this historic land as well as the current lack of capital, communities are restricted from preserving their own history and taking advantage of opportunities for more equitable developments. We can use historic tax credit incentives, but for smaller and locally driven projects, it’s really difficult.

Beyond just the grassroots work that folks like myself are drumming up, there is still a lack of outreach and education around preservation and its impact and what programs and resources are available. A lot of communities, especially Black and brown communities, have yet to understand the significance of preserving their history. The other barrier keeping this stagnant is the lack of diverse representation with developers and local government. It’s really hard to navigate cultural heritage and resources when you don’t have those cultural human assets that help support your narrative and amplify your voice.

Are these barriers a statewide issue, or does it vary from city to city?

I definitely think it is a statewide issue, because we have a hard time preserving our cultural resources and assets in Iowa, especially African American history and culture. It doesn’t just belong in a museum. People have to see it, live it, be part of it. We often put a namesake on a building while offering no cultural value otherwise.

On the local level, it’s really hard to get excited about a project and in turn have to convince the community to shoulder a heavy debt burden to see the project through. At the state level, we not only need incentives like grants, but we also need intentional efforts to carve out specifically designated areas and zones throughout various communities to be designated for preservation.

That doesn’t happen at the state level. We’re not doing a good job preserving our cultural contributions — today, yesterday or at any point.

The challenge with that is we face things like a pandemic where we have to go through so much loss of life. We’re not just losing lives, we’re losing these stories, these narratives. We’re losing this history. Iowa can’t wait. With an aging population, we have to tell these stories now, and we have to make sure these stories are in the hands of our youth. If they see themselves in these stories and continue to carry them forward, the storytelling element really brings the significance of a building full-circle.

What would you recommend for people who are interested in getting involved with historic preservation efforts such as the ones you have worked on?

First off, I encourage you to stay informed, reading and digesting content and stories like this one from Little Village. It’s so important and I’m glad you are doing this regularly. Secondly, it’s important for you to make a commitment to advocacy and action. I also encourage you to find your certified local government, find out who is leading the commission or that organization and reach out to them to let them know your interests in this work. There are a ton of opportunities to get involved, just not a lot of resources that are at the forefront of the public. So tap your CLG so you can understand where some of those resources might lie.

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 297.