sites of memory|
Landscapes of Race and Ideology
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Negotiated Space: The Historically Black College Campus as a Record of the Postbellum South
Kenrick Ian Grandison, Assistant Professor,
School of Natural Resources and Environment, University of Michigan
The secluded campus of Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute (now known as Tuskegee University) became the site of high drama in 1923 when the Ku Klux Klan commandeered the space for one of its rallies. Angry because the institution's principal Robert Russa Moton refused to yield to demands that white people be placed in charge of a newly erected Federal hospital for black World War I veterans, the band confronted the defiant principal at his doorstep and demanded that he sign a statement endorsing white management of the facility. "Booker T. Washington," as one member reminded the principal, "gave thirty-five years of his life to build up this school. You, unless you are too stubborn to sign a little paper here, are going to have it all blown up in twenty-four hours. We have the legislature, we make the laws, we have the judges, the sheriffs, the jails."
What came to a head in this moment was more than simply the conflict between "town" and "gown" in Tuskegee; also at conflict were the goals set out by Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and the status quo expectations assumed by whites who held the reigns of power in the Deep South. HBCUs emerged between the 1860s and the 1930s in response to the desire of African Americans, (and their supporters), to build a system of higher education to aid in social, economic, and political uplift. Concerted efforts to achieve this goal, however, frequently sparked threatening responses from some white Southerners who felt that black education undermined the economy of the region by endangering the supply of agricultural labor. This concern entailed the larger requirement that blacks remain under the control of a white power structure. Booker T. Washington's negotiation of this conflict was expressed in his advocating vocational training for African Americans as opposed to the higher pursuit of classical learning.
This presentation examines how Washington's negotiation was expressed spatially at Tuskegee and other HBCU's and how, if at all, these institutions recorded the contentious race relations that marked the Deep South in the Postbellum moment. The popular notion of "the other side of the tracks" is used to interrogate the spatial relationship between HBCU campuses and the towns in or near which they are located, showing how this relationship embodies the tensions surrounding black higher education. Apparent constraints or obstacles to building HBCU campuses "on the other side of the tracks" became vehicles by which campus leaders created dual meanings, mollifying whites while motivating and protecting the progressive educational goals of these institutions. Paralleling Booker T. Washington's accommodating rhetoric regarding the goals of black higher education, HBCU campuses appeared to embrace the "otherness" of their assigned location by showcasing their role in training the "hands" and "hearts" of their students for the purposes of the Southern economy. Furthermore, this façade provided a valuable cover for the radical role of developing the "heads" of students as well in the interest of black uplift.
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This project investigates the process of community esteem and institutional empowerment via the cultural expressions and designs of black institutions. Examples of several black cultural institutions, community, and religious centers illustrate the act of accommodating contextual and dominate cultural aesthetic design standards, while at the same time signifying a resistance and appropriation through cultural design and aesthetic decisions. This balancing act of accommodation and resistance in design and building, (much like other aspects of life), was carefully practiced by African American builders, architects, and designer during the era of slavery. This strategy continued and is used today along with the phenomenon of "environmental appropriation" or the reclaiming, redesign, or "taking" of a neighborhood, place, or building. Appropriation, accommodation and resistance become an integral part of the process of enabling positive community design while at the same time providing a source of cultural and community identity.
Three architectural examples are used to help explore the issues of accommodation, resistance, and appropriation. The Madame C.J. Walker Theater in Indianapolis, Indiana, commissioned by the noted African American beauty entrepreneur, provides a good example of architectural details and icons exhibiting specific cultural expressions while the overall function, layout and design abides by the larger forces and prevailing dominate aesthetic attitudes. Hampton University Memorial Church is also a good example of these design strategies within the larger setting of a historic black college and university (HBCU). The guiding philosophy of Hampton Institute and many HBCU's at their beginning was often based upon balancing and accommodating the dominate society's idea of education for the "coloreds" and the use of education by African Americans for social resistance and cultural advancement. Hampton's University Church and other University buildings exemplify this philosophy architecturally. The Richardsonian church is designed with larger and more dominate functional and aesthetic attitudes while incorporating details that exhibit a clear cultural African and Native American identity. The Revelation Baptist Church, in Cincinnati, Ohio serves as one of the most striking examples of appropriations. This African American congregation used a Jewish synagogue for its own church, changing and claiming the original temple for the unique African American Christian religious service and theology.
Slide photographs, drawings, and diagrams are used to discuss the issues of accommodation, resistance, and appropriation and their relationship to community empowerment and identity. Original artifacts, molded brick forms, and cornices from the Hampton University Church demonstrate the culturally influenced details and aesthetic.
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Many scholars have researched the importance of the social production (design) of space as a topic of design significance relevant to all cultures. The authors Henri Lefebvre, and more recently bell hooks, are two very important contributors to this subject. As a social phenomenon within black culture, the social production of space and, in particular, the street corner is worth revisiting as a means of research on social identity and representation.
Within black communities, the space of the street corner has historically been a critically important social space. In black culture the street corner is characterized as a political space, a space of confrontation and a space of education. A complex space, the corner operates simultaneously as a place to access privileged information, create personal bonds, transact business, and secure or "hold down your hood". Certain identities are cast in the light and shadows of these spaces, forging important relations between past and present. In traversing these spaces one is enveloped by events noting the history and future projections of a community. Together these physical and mental events mark the making of identity for both space and subject.
The importance of social relations organized around identification, production, and sustenance of space is evident in most communities and will be the subject of this presentation. Moreover, the metaphysical phenomenon of seeing and being seen in an environment where your existence is immediate and recognizable, will offer a critique of the possibilities of cultural design. The search for identity associated with the performance ritual(s) of these spaces will also be examined. In this presentation the search for identity is centered around opportunities created through specific social, political, and/or economic assignments. As a site of investigation, a New York City street corner at 116th Street and Lenox Avenue will be used to examine the power of social representation of a space. Photographic and oral histories of the legacy of significant events will define this cultural site by and through memory and other born associations.