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Preserving Black History

Posted On March 29, 2022 | 15:45 pm | by kathys | Permalink
Amber N. Wiley tells the story and legacy of Black historic preservation during the Bicentennial

Amber N. Wiley, assistant professor of art history at Rutgers University, is a fellow in Mellon Urban Landscape Studies. Her research report, “‘The Revolution Continues’: The 1976 Bicentennial and the Black Heritage Movement,” illuminated the work and impact of the Afro-American Bicentennial Corporation in historic preservation and beyond.

Q&A with Amber N. Wiley

What was the Afro-American Bicentennial Corporation and its mission?

The Afro-American Bicentennial Corporation (ABC) was a nonprofit organization founded in 1970 to increase the participation of Black Americans in the Bicentennial, the 200-year anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the beginning of the Revolutionary War. There was a huge to-do about the Bicentennial in the seventies. One goal of the organization was to increase participation of Black Americans in the festivities and, more generally, to be a vehicle for improving the lives of Black Americans.

 

What has been the corporation’s legacy, especially in historic preservation?

The ABC undertook a lot of different activities, including in mass media. It produced television shows and movies about Black history—interestingly, they engaged a number of movie stars, like James Earl Jones. He’s known as the voice of Darth Vader, but in 1970 he also starred in an ABC production of Frederick Douglass’s essay, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July.” It was set in Douglass’s house, which was under rehabilitation with the National Park Service at the time. They also thought about engaging professional athletes in promoting Black history, but they didn’t get too far with that.

Their most successful endeavor was in historic preservation, entering into a contract with the National Park Service to identify landmarks of Black history that could potentially become National Historic Landmarks or units of the National Park Service (NPS) itself on the National Register of Historic Places. ABC was founded by the brothers Robert DeForrest and Vincent DeForest, who were both civil rights activists, so networking wasn’t new to them, and they pulled on those networks to reach a wide audience. One network was what is now known as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), which had many Black historians whom ABC consulted. They also reached out to the Congressional Black Caucus for political support for their endeavors, putting the few Black congresspeople on ABC’s advisory board.

They brought these folks together for conversations about which Black landmarks were important and what should be preserved and subcontracted historians to fill out the forms and create nominations that they presented to the NPS. They nominated the homes of preeminent figures of Black history, like Harriet Tubman and Carter G. Woodson, the father of Black history (which is actually where I got started with this project). In total, they nominated over sixty sites under their contract with the Park Service. Being in DC has been supremely helpful because the ABC nominated or completed surveys on many sites in DC, like the houses of Duke Ellington and Alma Thomas. I went on a tour of one of the cemeteries the ABC worked to preserve in Georgetown, Mt. Zion Cemetery, with Aaron Wunsch, who was extremely helpful for understanding those narratives.

Even if the ABC didn’t nominate all the sites about Black history in DC, they were working on a number of scales, including surveying and research. Many of the places they surveyed in the seventies became parts of historic districts in the nineties, like the Fourteenth Street, U Street, and Shaw Historic Districts. These areas cover many buildings that the ABC surveyed in the seventies, and their research provided the argument for the necessity of these historic districts because DC’s historic preservation office wasn’t even looking at these neighborhoods¾in some cases, the office actually cites ABC documents in the eventual nominations.

 

How does understanding this organization modify our understanding of preservation and American history?

Studying the ABC is a vehicle for investigating the history of Black historic preservation, in a sense. Learning about the organization reminded me that things don’t just happen; it was a concerted effort by people who decided this needed to be put on the national radar. The DeFor(r)est brothers were also aware the NPS didn’t have resources like Black historians on staff to tell these stories and have these conversations, so they provided the capacity that was lacking, which I think is a model for what we can do today. If we understand that people working in NPS may not have a certain area of expertise, we can build on preexisting networks to expand the conversation about landmarks.

I’m also starting to look into how the ABC was very cognizant of partnering up with governmental organizations like Department of Housing and Urban Development. After the Bicentennial they renamed themselves the Afro-American Institute for Historic Preservation and Community Development. They wanted to not only preserve these spaces but also the communities and people, which is not traditionally the goal of historic preservation.

 

May Wang is postgraduate writing and reporting fellow. Photo by Emily Orr, humanities fellow.