Civil Rights Tour: Education - Afro-American Institute

1236 Euclid Street NW

"The history we were taught in school always came from a Eurocentric perspective. But the presence of blacks in American history is very significant…. And we have every right to protest, advocate and claim that which belongs to us."(Vincent DeForest, Washington Post, 1989)

Vincent DeForest, quoted above, and his brother Robert DeForrest (they spelled their last names differently) worked for at least a decade out of the large rowhouse at 1236 Euclid Street to document African American historic sites across the United States. By the late 1980s, they’d filled the house with historic photographs, maps, blueprints, and documents, and had helped get 76 black history sites dedicated as National Historic Landmarks. There had been just four in 1971, a year after they first established the institute as the Afro-American Bicentennial Corporation.

The brothers’ initial goal was to ensure that African American history be recognized during the year-long celebration of the nation's bicentennial in 1976. By 1978, they had partnered with scholars and the National Park Service (NPS) to landmark at least 60 sites, including Maggie Lena Walker's home in Richmond, the first to honor an African American woman. St. Luke's Episcopal Church at 15th and Church streets NW, and the Carter G. Woodson House were among the DC sites landmarked during this period. The DeFor[r]ests were also behind the National Register designation of LeDroit Park, the first historic district to be recognized, in part, for its African American history. Woodson's home and office were among several sites the brothers researched in Shaw, which they noted had "more [historic] black sites than any other community of its size in the country."

As Shaw and other black neighborhoods later faced the threat of gentrification, the DeFor[r]ests saw their work as increasingly urgent. Robert commented in 1989 that "major developers are literally bulldozing through our communities… In preservation, you don't have the luxury of time." "The preservation of the physical is as important as the written history," emphasized his brother. "Black people need to be able to touch and see their history." That year, the DeFor[r]ests also began working to survey the treatment of African American history at existing NPS sites across the country, to ensure it was being accurately interpreted.

In 1973, the brothers launched an annual reenactment of Douglass's 1852 address, "What to the Slave Was the 4th of July?" at the Frederick Douglass Site in Anacostia, a tradition that continues to this day. Actor James Earl Jones played Douglass for the inaugural reading. The brothers were inspired by their background as orphans. "We always had an intense desire to know our family and our history," remarked Vincent, who later worked for the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Robert first came to DC in 1967, and worked for Marion Barry 's Pride, Inc.

After events surrounding the nation's bicentennial subsided, the group rebranded itself the Afro-American Institute for Historic Preservation and Community Development. However, by the early 1980s, under the Reagan administration, funding for the brothers' programs fell off and the group disbanded. The former home-cum-headquarters at 1236 Euclid Street is currently back in residential use.