Respect Diversity + Inclusion

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Black churches get $20M donation

Story at a glance

  • A private philanthropic organization, Lilly Endowment Inc., donated $20 million to the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund this week.
  • The donation was used to establish the Preserving Black Churches Project.
  • The project aims to invest in historic Black churches and congregations to address their needs and help them tell their own stories.

An initiative to preserve historic Black churches across the U.S. received a $20 million donation to strengthen and manage existing Black churches, including one that was damaged in Kentucky after a severe tornado ripped through the state last month. 

The Lilly Endowment Inc., a private philanthropic organization, donated $20 million to the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, which then used the money to establish the Preserving Black Churches Project, according to the National Trust for Historical Preservation (NTHP).  

The purpose is to invest in historic Black churches and congregations to “reimagine, redesign and deploy historic preservation to address the institutions’ needs and the cultural assets and stories they steward,” according to the NTHP’s website. 

The announcement of the $20 million donation from the Lilly Endowment was timed to overlap with Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday, according to The Associated Press. 


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Brent Leggs, executive director of the fund, told the AP that the project is about more than just replacing broken infrastructure; it aims to assist with asset management and helping historic churches tell their own stories.  

Leggs also told the AP that St. James AME Church, which was founded three years after the conclusion of the Civil War in 1868 and was damaged during the recent tornadoes in Kentucky, will get $100,000 as the first recipient of the Preserving Black Churches Project’s special emergency funding.  

“Historically Black churches deserve the same admiration and stewardship as the National Cathedral in Washington or New York’s Trinity Church,” Leggs said.  

The Preserving Black Churches Project is planning to assist more than 50 Black churches across the country over the next three years, according to the AP. That includes helping some that are vacant, planned for demolition or struggling with funding, aging members and lower-than-expected membership.  

The African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund has previously helped congregations like Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., after a white supremacist killed nine parishioners there during a Bible study. 

According to the AP, the fund has raised more than $70 million and aided more than 200 preservation projects nationally.  

“No pillar of the African American community has been more central to its history, identity and social justice vision than the ‘Black church,’” said Henry Louis Gates Jr., lead adviser of Preserving Black Churches Project.  


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