Two Brothers Pushed the National Historic Landmark Program to Include Black History

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tags: historic preservation, African American history, public history, Historic Landmarks

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.

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.”

Read entire article at Washington Post