sites of memory|
Landscapes of Race and Ideology
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This presentation explores the M.A. Harris guidebook, Negro History Tour of Manhattan, which documents and marks African American presence in New York City. Harris' book opens up a liminal space between history and memory from which an ideology of the history of the City is reformulated. Created over thirty years ago, the guidebook marks an intersection of the Civil Rights Movement and mass leisure travel for African Americans. The book is an important contribution to the understanding of the history of the island of Manhattan as well as the African people who inhabited it. Yet, to walk book in hand in one of the many neighborhoods listed is frustrating, for little in the text is perceptible. Most of the sites have long been built over and, quite literally, there is nothing visible outside of Harlem.
In the late 1960's the New York City Landmarks and Preservation Commission was formed, and in the early 1970's instituted a set of procedures to preserve significant architectural work and cultural resources. However, establishing significant African American sites was in part dependent upon the efforts of historians like Harris. There is a critical difference between understanding the importance of these sites as defined by the Preservation Commission's guidelines, and as described by historians like Harris. Harris narrates a history full of people and events much more so than the scopic marks necessary to sustain a tourist's and preservationist's gaze. The very nature of Harris' sites were often tactical and ephemeral to begin with.
Two examples of a tour and narrative will be illustrated to (re)present Harris' book in a manner that reflects issues of subjectivity, erasure, and transformation. The first example demands physical occupation and movement within the fabric of Manhattan where the narrative of a tour depends upon a walk. The second example explores critical use of the media, (e.g. a web page titled Places of Memory: Walking Tours of Manhattan), to study the possibilities of touring remotely across space and time. Both tours will help to understand the ideology of the city Harris was responding to as well as project other possibilities for marking sites of African American significance in Manhattan.
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The landmark civil-rights case, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, asserted the primacy of the Fourteenth Amendment's guarantee of equal protection by declaring the doctrine of separate but equal inherently unequal. The 1954 Supreme Court case paved the way for such crucial legislative acts as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
As a step toward a history of the built environment inclusive of the cultural effects of race, and in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education's affirmation of public education as the most important function of state and local governments, this paper takes as its subject the preservation of a black educational history. By examining schools for African Americans built before 1954, I ask, what is the physical imprint of Brown v. Board of Education? What is the significance inherent in the preservation or re-use of a school building considered, in the aftermath of desegregation, sub-standard for the education of a bi-racial group of children? What would a museum of a one-room school house, with its lack of furniture, running water, indoor plumbing, artificial lights, or a safe source of heat, say about the ideology and political history of race? In the search for representation of black education in the contemporary urban landscape, should we look to Topeka -- or Little Rock?
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Enter between Rooms 306 and 307: Constructing History at the National Civil rights Museum
Mabel O.Wlson, Assistant Professor,
School of Architectural Studies, California College of of Arts and Crafts
If after many years of struggle, you arrive at the threshold of enunciation and are "given" the right to speak, is it not the case that there will be an overwhelming pressure to try and tell the whole story all at once?1
Opened in 1991 on the site in Memphis where the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. occurred, the National Civil Rights Museum (NCRM) has garnered national attention and accolades for its instructive exhibitions on the civil rights movement. Functioning as a research facility, educational center, and commemorative site, the museum is comprised of over 10,000 sq. ft. that includes exhibition galleries, a performance courtyard, an auditorium, and gift shop. Employing interactive exhibition techniques that simulate the environments of Freedom Ride buses and lunch counters sit-ins; the events of the civil rights era are made tangible to contemporary audiences. As the host of the Freedom Award bestowed upon an outstanding crusader for civil rights, Coretta Scott King, Mikhail Gorbachov, and Elie Wiesal among the recipients, the (NCRM) has expanded its mission to keep the spirit of humanitarianism alive. Beyond these efforts and through exhibits that trace the time-line of the civil rights era, including those occurrences which lead up to the volatile 50s and 60s, the museum has attracted to the region travelers seeking to find out more about the events and people who participated in this turbulent and spirited period of American history.
As part of the expanding roster of memorials, museums, and institutions dedicated to the remembrance and conservation of African American history and artifacts, the (NCRM) provokes a number of cogent questions concerning the location of these institutions and strategies for representing African American cultural history. As so often is the case, as the above epigram suggests, one site must speak for many destroyed, erased, or forgotten sites. Thus, the NCRM must perform a multivalent role; it memorializes the historical moment of Martin Luther King's assassination, it presents the history of African Americans struggle to achieve social and legal rights, it is an active center for archival research, it an institution sited within a contested, yet vibrant community. I propose to examine by way of a paper and visual presentation the ways in which the NCRM constructs and negotiates it's many identities and constituencies. My paper will address how the institution appropriates a hotel-a site of transience'and transforms it into a memorial'a site of permanence. This transformation, an uneasy and sometimes volatile one, also thrusts the surrounding community into prominence as a national and international site of pilgrimage. Beyond the urban implications of the museum's location, I also intend to examine the role of the institution in creating cultural narratives. For example does the reorganization of the interior of the hotel through the removal of walls to facilitate the movement through a grand historical narrative preclude other possible histories from the museum? If African American cultural heritage evolved from mutable forms of conveyance'oral and aural traditions, how does the NCRM evolve the western institutional structure of a museum whose ideological foundations privilege unity and stability?