The late Carl Westmoreland participated in a documentary about Underground Railroad Conductor Harriet Tubman narrated by Alfreynn Roberts and featuring interviews with leading scholars, including Mr. Westmoreland, then senior historian at the Freedom Center. Mr. Westmoreland is shown at a Center exhibit featuring Ms. Tubman. Photo by Scott Spears

Served and advocated for the Freedom Center

By Dan Yount

The Cincinnati Herald 

Carl Westmoreland, a renowned Civil Rights activist in Cincinnati and African American history and community preservationist throughout the country, died March 11, 2022. He was 85.

Visitation will be held on Saturday, March 26 from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. at the New Jerusalem Baptist Church, 26 W North Bend Road, Cincinnati, 45216. A funeral service will be held on Saturday, March 26 at 12. p.m. at the same location.  

Mr. Westmoreland served as founder and a historian at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center for almost 20 years.

“It is impossible to measure Mr. Westmoreland’s impact on our institution and our local and global community,” said Woodrow Keown Jr., president and COO of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, in a press release. “His wisdom and his passion for storytelling revealed a history of pain and perseverance, struggle and stoicism, agency and action. His impact will forever be felt within the Freedom Center and in a community he has been so instrumental in educating.”

The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center said Westmoreland’s work included research on the history of the slave trade in America and the “historic role class, gender, race and enslavement have played within contemporary political, social and economic issues.”

Before the Freedom Center opened, Mr. Westmoreland was an advocate for its creation. The Freedom Center said that when early designs called for a marble exterior of the museum, Westmoreland objected saying “African Americans have never known a smooth journey.” The rough, rugged marble exterior of the Freedom Center as we know it is emblematic of the African American journey and Mr. Westmoreland’s passion for telling our history in its raw detail,” according to accounts of the construction of the museum.

He was responsible for discovering and helping restore one of the most significant artifacts at the Freedom Center: The Slave Pen, found in a barn in the small town of Germantown, Kentucky, which came to Westmoreland’s attention in 1998. He immediately felt a connection and spent four years researching its history and the history and lifestyle of the surrounding community, 12 miles west of Maysville, Kentucky, before dismantling the Pen and reassembling it at the Center. Mr. Westmoreland’s time and effort paid off in a deep understanding of the complex history of the internal slave trade, which is now interpreted through the Center for over 450,000 visitors a year who can walk through the jail and experience first-hand the emotions that four wood walls can conjure up and learn about the struggles embedded in this country’s history. He had slept in the slave pen at night to feel what it was like to be in such a situation, to lose one’s identity and humanity. He brought that same emotion when he shared its history with groups of students or museum guests. He believed in the power of history and the importance of feeling those moments. In a Herald interview, he emphasized the importance of the younger African American generation knowing their heritage, even as difficult as it, at times, is to study,

“Mr. Westmoreland was a community organizer, preservationist and a distinguished voice of the ancestors who endured enslavement and oppression,” said Chris Miller, senior director of education and community engagement for the Freedom Center. “He challenged and inspired us to use historical accounts, that are often uncomfortable, as a constructive tool to bring perspective and resolution to diverse communities. He was an intellectual force that has left a lasting impact on Cincinnati and beyond.”

Freedom Center officials said in the press release mourning Mr. Westmoreland’s death that he was a mentor, an advocate and a champion of those around him, offering wisdom to those at the museum navigating the dark, painful moments of American history, and to “Black professionals navigating a culture in America that required them to often work harder for less.

For the last four decades, Carl B. Westmoreland was a leader in urban revitalization and preservation, from the grassroots community level to national and international arenas. In a 1971 newspaper article, he was quoted as saying, “I believe in positive fighting within the system,” and this philosophy and dedication to improving communities and education through the preservation of history led him to make a significant impact on every project he had been involved in since the 1960s. Furthermore, not only did he directly influence communities himself, he has also served as a pioneer for the larger preservation movement, especially African American historic preservation.

Westmoreland’s preservation work began in 1967 when he focused his attention on the African American community in Mount Auburn, and with other community individuals formed the Mount Auburn Good Housing Foundation to renovate buildings many believed were damaging the community. He was involved with renovating more than 200 homes and businesses. He also provided technical assistance to other nonprofit housing groups in Cincinnati and more than 90 American cities

Throughout his career, he has received a number of accolades including serving as the first African American Trustee of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. He  brought preservationists together from across the country to explore alternatives to deterioration and displacement in inner city neighborhoods, which led to a 1979 nomination for the Rockefeller Foundation Award for Historic Preservation. He also received America’s highest award for historic preservation, the Louise du Pont Crowninshield Award.

Westmoreland, a native of Lincoln Heights and a graduate of Wyoming High School, lived the last 40 years of his life in Cincinnati, a city he has changed in many ways since he first moved there. In the 1960’s, he focused his attention on the primarily African American Mount Auburn community, believing that homeownership and engagement were the keys to making the community a better place. In 1967, he and some neighbors formed the Mount Auburn Good Housing Foundation with 7,000 dollars in seed money from a wealthy Cincinnatian. The Foundation began by renovating buildings they believed were most damaging to the community, and it quickly became a multimillion dollar operation involved in the renovation of over 2,000 homes and businesses and providing technical assistance to other nonprofit housing groups in Cincinnati and nationwide.

His simultaneous interest in preservation as a part of renovation in the neighborhood garnered him much attention, and in the mid ‘70s he became the first African American Trustee of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. This leadership in preservation led him to be involved in a number of groundbreaking events on a national level, including the Savannah Neighborhood Action Conference: Tenants and Landlords, which brought together preservationists from all over the country to explore alternatives to deterioration and displacement in inner city neighborhoods. This type of work eventually brought him a nomination in 1979 for the Rockefeller Foundation Award for Historic Preservation.

His association with the National Trust also gave him international prominence, leading him to travel the world working in diverse countries on preservation issues, even serving at one point as part of a six-person delegation to the People’s Republic of China. Throughout these activities, Westmoreland never lost his dedication to his hometown and he continued his efforts in Cincinnati neighborhoods, heading organizations small and large from Madisonville Housing Services to the Cincinnati Housing Service to the Ohio Preservation Alliance.

In 1993, Mr. Westmoreland received the Louise du Pont Crowninshield Award from the National Trust. They honored him, among other things, for his dedication to both revitalizing and preserving inner city neighborhoods and fostering awareness of urban issues, poverty, and race relations, subjects he examined and re-examined throughout his career. It was his understanding of these issues and his interest in African American history that spurred him to his next big project – the creation of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.

Westmoreland remained a large presence at the Center and continued to research the history of African Americans in the United States. His vast experience with complicated issues of neighborhood politics, race relations, preservation and revitalization makes him one of the most valuable resources and leaders in historic preservation in the country, and he continued to inspire young preservationists of all races.

When Mr. Westmoreland was honored in 2016 by Cincinnati City Council for Black History Month, this was said of him, “For almost 50 years, Westmoreland has served as an urban historian of Cincinnati and a leader in the urban revitalization and preservation efforts in the city on national and international levels. His vast experience with complicated issues of neighborhood politics, race relations, preservation and revitalization makes him one of the most valuable resources and leaders in historic preservation in the country.’’

“Carl has lead a life dedicated to the preservation of African American history spanning academic and community dialogues as well as saving physical structures,” says Dr. Clarence G. Newsome, former President of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. “Generations of Cincinnatians, and Americans, will benefit from his passion and leadership.”

“Carl Westmoreland is an urban preservationist and community builder, a champion for equity and justice and keeper of Cincinnati history. He is a Cincinnati treasure who will be immortalized in our history books for future historians to write about,” said then Cincinnati Councilwoman Yvette Simpson, is presenting him with the City’s Black History Month award. 

“I am overwhelmed by the love and admiration that so many have expressed to us about our father. Dad was fearless and full of energy. He was determined to make the world a better place. He loved his family, his community and his work. I will never forget the many lessons he taught me. I will honor and protect his legacy,” said Guy Westmoreland of his father.

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