In 1964, the National Capital Planning Commission and the Commission of Fine Arts established the Joint Committee on Landmarks (JCL). Tasked with creating the DC Inventory of Historic Sites, the JCL identified and documented over two hundred historic landmarks significant to the District’s cultural and aesthetic heritage. As the decade went on, preservation movements took hold of other major cities across the country, resulting in the creation of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. Through this legislation, the federal government established the National Register of Historic Places and the National Historic Landmarks programs under the National Park Service, enumerating sites of national, state, and local significance. With the creation of this law, some historic buildings and sites gained protection under the federal government.
Although DC had a rich diversity in the 1970s (hence the moniker “Chocolate City” by the funk band, Parliament), local historic preservation efforts and the impending Bicentennial of the United States favored predominantly white histories. To combat this issue, Vincent DeForest and Robert DeForrest formed the Afro-American Bicentennial Corporation (ABC) in 1970 to challenge white historical narratives perpetuated by primarily white institutions.
A non-profit organization, the ABC advocated for increased representation in the American historical narrative, specifically through designation of historic places related to the Black experience in the National Register of Historic Sites. Before 1973, there were only three Black historic sites designated across the entire United States: the Frederick Douglass House in Washington, DC, the Booker T. Washington House in Virginia, and the George Washington Carver House in Missouri. Through a three-year contract with the National Park Service, the ABC designated over sixty Black historic sites to the National Register by the Bicentennial, exponentially increasing Black representation across the historic landscape.
The ABC’s foundational work in social justice challenged the local DC historic preservation movement in the 1970s to reflect diverse historical narratives in the built environment. While there is still much work to be done in diversifying the inventory of historic places, the ABC acted as an impetus for modernizing historic preservation efforts in the nation’s capital, and across the country. The following tour features DC sites nominated by the ABC during their contract from 1973 to 1976 with the National Park Service; these historic sites make up a small portion of the places nominated across the country to the National Register. As DC Preservation League continues to expand the DC Inventory of Historic Sites with diverse nominations, we look to the work of the ABC as an exemplar of diversity and inclusion.