The Center for Historic Preservation at Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) is partnering with local communities to interpret, preserve, and promote the Mid-South’s rich cultural heritage. Through this work, the center creates research and project-based learning opportunities for its undergraduate and graduate students in urban and rural areas across the region.
These projects enable students to participate in a wide range of pro bono preservation work, including the creation of historic preservation plans, historic structure reports, and heritage tourism plans. Projects respond to community needs, explains Assistant Director of the Center for Historic Preservation Antoinette G. van Zelm. “Most of the projects that we do originate within the communities themselves, where they come to us and apply for a partnership project.”
The wide range of community needs enables the students to build a diverse portfolio of preservation work, which the Center encourages. “There is quite a broad spectrum of projects that we work on,” van Zelm notes. “We try to rotate students around so that they get experience in several different areas. They'll do, for example, a historic structure report or preservation plan or national register nomination on a significant structure. But then they'll also work on maybe a driving tour or brochure or an exhibit.”
In one recent project, the Center worked with the Brewer-Bernis Community Center, which occupies the structure of Tennessee’s oldest Rosenwald School in Jackson, Tennessee. Rosenwald Schools were built across the South for African American children through the initiative of educator Booker T. Washington and businessman Julius Rosenwald.
The Center for Historic Preservation produced a heritage development plan for the Brewer-Bemis Community Center in 2014 and recommended a heritage room with interpretive panels. About four years later, the Brewer-Bernis Community Center applied again for assistance developing the heritage room. Subsequently, a team of staff and graduate and undergraduate students from MTSU worked with the community center to develop the interpretive panels
The project offered learning opportunities for the students, as the undergraduate intern Tara Salvati explains in a blog post on the Center for Historic Preservation website: “There aren’t many Rosenwald schools left standing, and the old schoolhouse in Jackson is believed to be the oldest one left in the state. While on this project, I was able to speak with the lead project coordinator, Mrs. Lucy Ida Wilbourn, and to offer suggestions about space usage for a planned heritage room at the community center, designed in part for K-12 field trips. I also worked with Dr. Graham to facilitate the installation of several interpretive panels that showcase the community center’s rich history.”
Founded in 1984, the University’s Center for Historic Preservation currently also administers three major statewide programs: the Tennessee Civil War National Heritage Area (in partnership with the National Park Service), the Tennessee Century Farms Program, which has certified over 1,800 farms that have remained in the hands of the same family for over 100 years, and Teaching with Primary Sources—MTSU (in partnership with the Library of Congress).