Preserving Chocolate City

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.

Blanche K. Bruce House

Born into slavery in Prince Edward County, Virginia, Blanche Kelso Bruce (1841-1898) gained his freedom through the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. He dedicated much of the rest of his life to improving his country and his community, teaching at…

Mary McLeod Bethune House

This row house is notable for its significance as the headquarters of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) and as the DC residence of Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955), educator and civil rights leader. The row house transitioned from a…

Mary Church Terrell House

Mary Church Terrell (1863-1954) earned her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees at Oberlin College during the 1880s and taught in Ohio and Washington, DC. Following the completion of her graduate degree, Mary Church traveled and studied languages abroad.…

Carter G. Woodson House

At a time of Jim Crow ideology and enforced segregation, Carter G. Woodson (1875-1950) pioneered the documentation of African American life and the recognition of African American contributions to US history. Born to enslaved parents, Woodson was…

Charlotte Forten Grimké House

Built circa 1875, this row house was the home of Charlotte Forten Grimké from 1881 to 1886. Grimké (1838-1914) was a pioneer Black female educator, an early supporter of women’s rights, a writer, and an active abolitionist. She was among the first…

Saint Luke’s Episcopal Church

Built between 1876 and 1879, Saint Luke’s is a major work of Calvin T.S. Brent (1854-1899), the city’s first Black architect. It is designed in the early English Gothic style and features a long nave with cast-iron columns, exposed roof framing, oak…

Mary Ann Shadd Cary House

From 1881 to 1885, this was the home of Mary Ann Shadd Cary (1823-1893), who was a writer, journalist, educator, abolitionist, and lawyer. She is generally regarded as the first Black female journalist in North America and Canada’s first female…