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‘We Were a Game-Changer’: Detroit’s First Black Owned Bookstore Secures $15,000 Preservation Grant

The site of Detroit’s first Black-owned bookstore is one step closer to becoming a national preserved treasure. Vaughn’s Bookstore, once located on the city’s west side on Dexter Ave., is the recipient of a $15,000 preservation grant.

The grant was issued through the National Park Service’s Underrepresented Communities Grant program, which has awarded nearly $3 million since its inception in 2014.

Vaughn’s Bookstore after the 1967 Rebellion (Bentley Historical Society)

The shop’s owner is former Michigan House of Representatives member Edward “Ed” Vaughn. For 40 years, Vaughn owned and operated the bookstore. “We were a game-changer,” said the former executive to Detroit’s first Black mayor, Coleman Alexander Young.

“There had not been a bookstore here before, and of course I got into the business because I was looking for a book called ‘A Hundred Years of Lynchings’ by Ginsberg, and I was told downtown that they didn’t have the book in stock and I decided that I’d see if I could find it and then when I found it and my friends at the post office said that they’d like to read that and other Black books, so I began to order them and sell them out of the trunk of my car.”

By 1962, the brick and mortar of Vaughn’s Bookstore had become a staple in the community. Black public figures such as Malcolm X and Elijah Mohammed held speaking engagements at the shop during the civil rights movement.

“There was sort of an awakening in the community from New York, we were hearing about things happening there. I sold a, a magazine called ‘The Liberator,’ and so the consciousness was being developed and of course ‘Mohammed Speaks’ and those things were happening then, so there was a consciousness that was being raised throughout the community,” added Vaughn. 

Five years later, the store would be destroyed during the the city’s 1967 rebellion — only to be rebuilt before officially shuttering its doors in the 1990s. Proposed restoration plans include revitalizing the storefront and the Dexter Ave. strip mall, bring in new business and ultimately reopen the bookstore.

“As the first Black-owned bookstore in Detroit and a hub of African-American journalism and conversation, Vaughn’s Bookstore played a key role in the tumultuous Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s,” said Mark Rodman, Michigan’s state historic preservation officer. “An important priority of the National Register program is to document those sites associated with significant events that have contributed to broad patterns of our history.”

The National Register is a program — put in place by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 — that provides support to help protect buildings, sites, districts, structures and objects. There are currently more than 96,000 properties represented from each of the 50 states on the register. 

Currently, only six bookstores — The Shrine of the Black Madonna, Source Booksellers, Black Stone Bookstore & Cultural Center, Detroit Book City, Hood Book Headquarters and God’s World Superstore — listed as Black owned are located in the metro Detroit area.

Last year the NPS awarded $7.7 million in grants to 18 structural preservation projects at Historically Black Colleges and Universities, including the restoration and exterior repair of Morehouse College’s Samuel T. Graves Hall — to the tune $500,000.

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