Monday, July 22, 2024

There were few Black historic landmarks. Two brothers changed that.

There were few Black historic landmarks. Two brothers changed that.


In 1970, there were only two National Historic Landmarks focused exclusively on Black history. By 1976, that number had risen beyond 70.

Behind this change was a large coalition of Black scholars, policymakers and activists, led by two brothers from Ohio who started the campaign in a D.C. basement.

Vincent deForest and Robert DeForrest pursued this initiative through the Afro-American Bicentennial Corp., which they had created to nudge the 1976 independence commemoration in a less-Eurocentric direction. (The brothers spelled their last names differently after Vincent deForest changed his to match his birth certificate, which he saw for the first time as an adult.)

The culture of the National Park Service in the 1970s was not always hospitable to their ideas. Park service officials sometimes argued that the sites the ABC nominated as landmarks didn’t have enough “historical integrity.” The ABC, in turn, argued that the park service’s criteria put too much emphasis on architecture and were inherently weighted against Black communities, where grand old buildings were less likely to be intact.

Ultimately, the ABC succeeded thanks to a combination of political savvy, powerful backing and favorable timing.

Now, almost five decades later, the ABC’s influence is everywhere, both in physical sites and in the field of historic preservation — but the story of its unlikely success has been largely forgotten.

From a D.C. basement to Capitol Hill

Vincent deForest, 86, lives in St. Louis with his wife of 55 years. Robert died in 2007.

The brothers were born in Cleveland, the two youngest of eight children. Their mother died just after Vincent was born, and he grew up in four different homes.

“There wasn’t a lot of stability,” he recalled. “And maybe that’s one of the reasons why history became so important to us.”

Vincent dropped out of school at age 17 and joined the Marine Corps, but he later studied architecture and worked for Robert Madison, the first Black licensed architect in Ohio. In the early-1960s, he found himself in Washington, D.C., en route to a Peace Corps assignment that didn’t pan out. He stayed in town and joined the civil rights movement, eventually taking a job with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference under the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Robert came to join him after being discharged from the Army.

Preparations for the bicentennial had begun as early as 1966, when Congress appointed a commission to spearhead the project. It was clear to many in the civil rights world that unless Black activists got involved, the celebrations would overwhelmingly focus on two centuries of White America.

“I have enough appreciation for the history of the country to know that 1776 is not a high-water mark for African American involvement in our country — or Native American,” Vincent said.

The federal commission had three program areas: heritage (devoted to historical displays and publications), horizon (looking to the country’s future) and festival (events planned in D.C. and other major cities). When the deForests launched the ABC, they hoped to wield influence in all three areas. But it was their work in the heritage category, stemming from Vincent’s background in architecture, where they had the most traction.

Around 1970, Vincent cleared space in the basement of his house in D.C.’s Takoma neighborhood for some filing cabinets and desks. He and Robert made it their office. The first members of their advisory board, and the shop that printed their fliers, all resided within the neighborhood.

In those early days, no one in the park service’s higher echelons was taking their calls. “The park service was a little plantation at the time,” Vincent said.

But when his father-in-law, an architect in St. Louis, heard about what he was doing, he offered to pass Vincent’s name along to George Hartzog, the NPS director, with whom he had worked on the Gateway Arch. A few days later, Vincent received a call from Hartzog, inviting him in for a meeting.

“And at that meeting, he had lined up all of the top people within the park service to hear what we had to say,” Vincent recalled. “He said that if we got the money, he would put it on the top agenda.”

Funding came in the spring of 1972. That March, the brothers were in Gary, Ind., for the National Black Political Convention — at the time, the largest-ever Black political meeting. They set up an ABC exhibit and pitched their project to everyone who would listen. It wasn’t until the flight back that Vincent made his most important contact: Ron Dellums, a Black congressman from California. Dellums, from his seat in first class, recognized Vincent as he was walking toward coach.

“He grabbed me and said, ‘No, sit here!’” Vincent said. “So we flew all the way back to D.C. together. He wanted to know everything.”

Two days later, the brothers found themselves in a meeting with Rep. Julia Butler Hansen (D-Wash.), a member of the House Appropriations Committee. Soon, the committee earmarked funds for an ABC contract with the park service to conduct an exhaustive survey of Black history sites.

The contract enabled the brothers to rent an office near Logan Circle and to hire a research director, a young museum consultant named Marcia Greenlee. But the ABC was still unprepared to handle the work on its own.

Instead, it depended on the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, founded in 1915 by Carter G. Woodson, known as the “father of Black history.” With its help, the ABC’s advisory board quickly became a “who’s who” of Black scholars. Charles H. Wesley, John Blassingame, Mary Francis Berry and Benjamin Arthur Quarles were all members.

“To be honest, I think they blew the minds of the folks at the National Park Service with a lot of that research,” said Amber N. Wiley, a University of Pennsylvania professor who has studied the ABC’s work. The group became a nexus between the academy and the federal government.

However, even with the federal contract and the extensive scholarly support, Greenlee and her team still met with resistance from the park service.

“Afro-Americans, in common with several other ethnic minorities in the United States, have few historic sites with physical remains because of two factors — slavery and racism,” she wrote in a 1973 report called “Beyond the Fireworks of ’76.” “Slaves were without material wealth. They were compelled to devote their labors to the establishment of white men’s wealth. Many of the structures which have now been declared historic by Anglo-Americans were built by black men although that aspect of their history is almost never mentioned.”

Still, the park service ultimately acted on the group’s recommendations. Between 1974 and 1976, it added at least 67 Black history sites to the National Historic Landmarks program, thanks largely to the ABC’s research. These included numerous sites in D.C. — such as the Charlotte Forten Grimké House near Dupont Circle, the Carter G. Woodson Home in Shaw and the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church downtown — along with the Martin Luther King Jr. Historic District in Atlanta, the Harriet Tubman home in central New York and the Maggie Lena Walker House in Richmond.

Changing the face of historic preservation

When the bicentennial fanfare died down, the ABC rebranded itself the Afro-American Institute for Historic Preservation and Community Development. Its work with the park service was mostly finished, but it had many other initiatives, including a summer program for Black teens to work on historic preservation projects, a program to help poor people lower their energy costs and a series of workshops to collect ideas for restoring Black neighborhoods that had been wrecked by highway construction.

But after Ronald Reagan became president in 1981 — and James Watt, a longtime foe of the conservation movement, became his interior secretary — federal contracts for the deForests’ programs became few and far between.

“The economic pressure forced me to get a job,” Vincent said. He wound up working for the park service, eventually as a special assistant to the director. He retired shortly after George W. Bush took office as president. By then, Robert DeForrest had become ill, and the ABC’s successor organization was no longer active.

Almost five decades after the bicentennial, the ABC’s influence is widely overlooked. Wiley says that when the organization has been discussed in scholarly literature, it’s usually in footnotes. However, it’s likely that many important Black history sites would have been destroyed if not for the ABC’s intervention. And in the field of historic preservation, the problems the ABC highlighted have become more widely recognized — even if they haven’t been eradicated.

The ABC paved the way for contemporary organizations like the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, which was established in 2017 to help protect Black history sites. In recent decades, the National Park Foundation has also devoted more resources to preserving the history of minority groups.

Wiley also says other organizations — for instance, those dedicated to preserving women’s history, Latin American history and LGBTQ history — have consciously drawn on the ABC’s model of “bringing the academy to the public in a digestible way.”

Vincent deForest says some of the fights are far from over. He points to the U.S. semiquincentennial — the 250th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence — which will be celebrated in three years. Citing recent squabbling over “critical race theory” and efforts to keep parts of U.S. history out of school curriculums, he said the lead-up has reminded him of the battles he fought in the early 1970s.

“What we are facing today,” he said, “is an indicator that we still have not learned our lesson.”

Nick Tabor is a freelance journalist and the author of “Africatown: America’s Last Slave Ship and the Community It Created,” forthcoming from St. Martin’s Press.

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