Last week, I gave a talk at Black Spaces Matter, a symposium and exhibit at Boston Architectural College showcasing an abolitionist neighborhood in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Pamela Karimi, an associate professor at UMass Dartmouth, curated the exhibit and gave an overview of the research and design that went into creating the show. Lee Blake, executive director of the New Bedford Historical Society, gave a rousing and deeply informative lecture on the history of African Americans in New Bedford. I talked about the use of digital preservation to reveal and share aspects of African-American cultural heritage that might be otherwise lost. Click to see a video of my presentation or read the full transcript below.
Thank you. Thank you to Pamela and everyone else involved with organizing this exhibit and panel discussion. While I won’t be talking specifically about New Bedford or abolitionist neighborhoods, I am interested in the ways in which we learn about, discuss, and understand African-American cultural heritage.
When I first began teaching courses in architectural and urban history, I was really dismayed to see how little students knew about the history of black people in the United States. Now, as majors in architecture and urban planning, I wouldn’t expect young students, especially undergraduates to know the minor details of 18th and 19th century American history. But this wasn’t the problem. The problem was that students didn’t understand the significance of pretty major events, like the trans-Atlantic slave trade or, notable historic periods, like the Reconstruction Era. I found it impossible (and quite frankly unconscionable) to teach the history of architecture and urbanism in the United States without also teaching the history of black life in this country. Accordingly, for me, questions of space (in the U.S.) are almost always also questions of race, liberty, and justice.
I want to use my time today to talk through a few projects I’ve developed over the last year or so that I use as tools for teaching and learning about the convergence of space and blackness in the United States. These tools are all web-based interfaces that simultaneously serve as sites of preservation of African-American heritage. I want to position the digital preservation of black history and culture as an important component of practicing principles of racial and spatial justice.
[IMAGE - THE GREAT MIGRATION: BLACK BODIES IN PUBLIC SPACES]
Anytime I begin talking about the intersection of race and space, I start with the famed sociologist and historian, W. E. B. Du Bois, and so I will do so here.
Du Bois famously noted that the central issue of the 20th century was the question of the color line. While on the surface, du Bois is clearly referring to the figurative place of race in the collective imagination, I want to take his statement about the color line literally to think about the spatialization of race. Race — and its various expressions through culture, legislation, and social mores — is enacted and regulated through physical lines drawn in space. In many ways, the history of racial discrimination and anti-black sentiments in the United States can be reduced to the prohibitions — both implicit and explicit — of black bodies in public spaces. The rallying cry of “Black Lives Matter,” and now “Black Spaces Matter,” make explicit what most of us have known, if only intuitively, for centuries — that social differences (perceived or real) are instituted through spatial differences.
When African-Americans were restricted from common public places and institutions earlier in this country’s history, the private homes of black Americans and the black institutions created by black American became places of freedom, sanctuary, and resistance. These black publics mattered intensely for African-Americans from the moment the first enslaved Africans were brought to this continent.
Yet notions of “black space” were antithetical to 19th century academic understandings of home, public space, and common institutions. Even though African-Americans in the early Americas constituted a significant portion of the overall population, spatial studies (whether in architecture, urban planning, geography, or sociology) took whiteness as a default backdrop to understanding cities and the places in which people lived.
[IMAGE - THE PHILADELPHIA NEGRO]
As a budding sociologist, W. E. B. du Bois pushed back against this academic erasure of the black experience. He instead introduced the new subject of urban sociology by launching an incredibly ambitious project to comprehensively and exhaustively categorize every black household in Philadelphia. Unlike previous academic studies that pathologized blackness through pseudo-scientific and often invasive studies of black bodies, du Bois sought to humanize, categorize, and most importantly, understand black social space through the study of black neighborhoods. In this, he resisted the notion that black personhood was a problem by instead problematizing cities and urban living at the turn of the 20th century.
The results of du Bois’ groundbreaking study were published in the book “The Philadelphia Negro,” which came out in 1899.
[IMAGE - PHILADELPHIA MAP]
In “The Philadelphia Negro,” du Bois meticulously mapped the dense urban neighborhoods of Philadelphia. He did this with the help of a group of graduate students who, along with him, went door-to-door to every household in the district to survey the people living there. Beyond classifying the race of each member of the household, du Bois’ team segmented the population by class, age, gender, income, and profession. This data went into detailed maps that began to show not just where African-Americans lived in Philadelphia, but how they lived and who they lived with and alongside. The maps revealed neighborhoods that were racially segregated — to a degree — and also highly economically diverse. Doctors and lawyers lived adjacent to trade workers and domestics. And while some blocks were entirely black, many interspersed black and white households.
Du Bois’ study of Philadelphia illuminated, for the first time, what life was really like for black people living in cities at the turn of the 20th century. It revealed that the “ghetto” was actually a place of great diversity in class, income, profession, and sometimes even race. Du Bois' project also served to make black life visible in the study of cities and urban living.
Du Bois’ study came at a time when African-Americans — and Americans in general — were beginning to leave small farming towns for the cities where industrial work, though grueling and difficult, was much better paid than agricultural work. Cities grew immensely at the turn of the 20th century as black and white agricultural workers from the South, and immigrants from Europe, flooded Northern cities in pursuit of a better life.
[IMAGE - FIRST GREAT MIGRATION MAP]
After the failed Reconstruction period following the Civil War, which itself was followed by a reign of racial terror in the South, a multitude of black agricultural workers made their way northward in a trek referred to as The Great Migration. Split into two periods — the first lasting from 1916-1930 and the second from 1930-1970 — the Great Migration saw nearly 6 million African Americans move from the southern United States to the North, making it the largest population shift in American history.
Teaching the Great Migration is an important starting point for teaching the rise and evolution of cities in the United States because in many ways the Great Migration was responsible for the massive growth of northern industrial cities during this period. However, as I was teaching this to students of architecture and urban planning — students who, remember, remained largely unknowledgable of many aspects of black history in the U.S. — I struggled to convey both the size and scope of this migration. Maps such as this one traced the lines of migration across the country. However, I wanted to show more directly how many people were involved in these movements.
[IMAGE - GREAT MIGRATION STILL]
To that end, I began creating a map of the Great Migration that used historical census data to show the population counts in every county across the United States. Beginning with 1790, the year of the first decennial census, we can see that the black population of the U.S. (largely a slave population) was concentrated heavily not just in the south generally, but more specifically in coastal Virginia and the southern coast of South Carolina. The white areas on the map are places with no African-American population or no data available because these areas were territories and not yet states.
[VIDEO - GREAT MIGRATION]
Over the course of decades, then centuries, we see the numbers and concentration of African-Americans begin to grow and get more dense within the south, then plateau just after the Civil War. By 1890, the number of African-Americans in southern counties begins to drop and by 1930 the counties containing the largest industrial cities — like Detroit, Chicago, and Philadelphia — begin to see growth in the African-American population. This growth continues through to 2000, when the African-American population plateaus again between 2000 and 2010.
[VIDEO - GREAT MIGRATION DEMO]
I used this interactive map to do several things. First, to convey to students not just how many African-Americans were in the U.S. in the 19th century but seriously how black the country was. These maps show the relative numbers of African Americans by percentage of population. In Virginia and South Carolina, most counties had a greater number of blacks than whites. In some counties, African-Americans were upwards of 60 and 70% of the population. If we compare this to the counties surrounding Boston, where African Americans were less than 2% of the population throughout the 19th and into the first half of the 20th century, we can surmise that very different narratives about race, space, integration, and segregation existed in these places. Charleston, South Carolina was very much a black city in the 18th and 19th century. Using these maps, I challenged my students to think about urbanism in this context. What does it mean to have an important port city that is populated predominately by enslaved Africans? How might we think, and think through, urbanism in this context?
[IMAGE - ARCHITECTS GENEALOGY PROJECT]
The Great Migration Map prompted me to think more about who makes a city. In reality, cities are made by a multitude of diverse actors — residents, businesses, planners, architects, politicians, are just a few. In the context of teaching architecture and urban planning, we tend to focus on the architects and planners — a practice I try to challenge in multiple ways, but even within that practice are some problems of how we begin identify and talk about city makers, which I will illustrate by turning back to du Bois for a moment.
[IMAGE - DUBOIS' DIAGRAMS]
In 1900, just after publishing The Philadelphia Negro, du Bois created a series of maps and diagrams that attempted to apply the same methodology executed in The Philadelphia Negro to the entire state of Georgia. Created for the 1900 Paris Exposition, du Bois’ renderings show not just the state of black life in Georgia, but the conditions of black space in Georgia compared to majority white space. My favorite of these renderings is a diagram, here on the left, showing the relative numbers of blacks living in cities (green), suburbs (yellow), and rural areas (red). Despite the flux of blacks to the north following reconstruction and the growing industrial infrastructure of the United States, the majority continued to live in rural areas. I love the relational aspect of this diagram and how it serves to make visible the relatively invisible presence of blacks in American spatial history.
I had this relational diagrammatic approach in mind when I began working on the Architects Genealogy Project.
[IMAGE - CHICAGO ARCHITECTS GENEALOGY PROJECT]
The project originally began within the Society of Architectural Historians as an attempt to create a comprehensive genealogy of Chicago-based architects. Researchers at the SAH created an immense text poster that linked the professional heritage of thousands of Chicago-based architects practicing between 1841 and 2014. All of those tiny lines are the names of architects and firms!
[IMAGE - CHICAGO ARCHITECTS GENEALOGY PROJECT DETAIL]
As you can see, this was a tedious and exhaustive project. It was also very difficult to view. I began thinking about a creating a tool that could function as a relational diagram highlighting the professional connections between architects and firms while doing so in a more readable manner.
[IMAGE - INTERACTIVE CHICAGO ARCHITECTS GENEALOGY PROJECT]
So I created an interactive diagram that positions the timeline on the left and packages the histories of individual architects by the firms they worked at, which are represented by the bubbles along the timeline. Larger bubbles (meaning larger firms) have more architects working at them.
[VIDEO - CHICAGO ARCHITECTS GENEALOGY PROJECT DEMO]
So you can scroll up and down the timeline, hover over a bubble to see the name of the firm, the dates of its existence and, on the right, a list of the architects who worked there. This framework succeeded, I think, in making the SAH’s information more readable. But I, in conjunction with the director of the SAH, began thinking about how this framework could do more than just show the data, but allow us to mine the data for more information about architects and how they practice. Adding in information regarding the gender and education of an architect could allow us to see at what schools notable architects are being educated and at what points gender imbalances in architectural practice begin to shift.
[IMAGE - INTERACTIVE CHICAGO ARCHITECTS GENEALOGY PROJECT]
One major problem with this framework though is that the information feeding it was based on a list of notable architects — those who had won awards and been published in magazines. Recognition of this sort for architects almost always goes to the principals of the firms and almost never to others working on the projects being commended. So in many ways, this architects genealogy traced relational genealogy among well known architecture firms, not necessarily among worthy architects.
In addition to including information on gender and education, we began discussing including race as a categorizing and searchable factor. Immediately, the framework revealed another flaw; the framework as it stood privileged notable firms, which meant only the very relatively few black architects who had their own firms would make it into this framework, leaving hundreds of other black (and women) architects out.
With this in mind, I inverted the framework of the original Architects Genealogy so that it now will feature architects rather than firms. In the new Architects Genealogy — coming soon, not yet published — the blue bubbles will represent architects with the size of the bubble determined by their relative influence based on the number of projects they worked on. With a searchable database allowing one to find architects based on race, gender, and education, in addition to searching by building, firm, and city, I like to think of this Architects Genealogy as a way of writing black city making, through the practice of architecture, back into the spatial history of the United States.
[IMAGE - PARCI]
These two projects — The Great Migration map and the Architects Genealogy framework — converge for me in this more ambitious undertaking called A Public Archive of Architecture and Cities, or PARCi.
[IMAGE - PHILADELPHIA MAP]
Du Bois’ maps of Philadelphia and Georgia were attempts to understand fully and in every way what it meant to live in black space in the early 19th century. Visual documentation was key to this endeavor as it allowed the direct communication of nuances otherwise lost in the research. Additionally, using maps and diagrams meant quantifying this spatial information for specific kinds of in-depth analyses while still being able to draw qualitative conclusions.
As I’ve mentioned earlier, these projects were also attempts to give black space and its associated black life a verified presence in the academic study of people and cities. I see this verified presence as crucial to any teaching and learning of architectural and urban history. Many studies of black spatial life — urban, suburban, and rural — have followed du Bois’ own. Additionally, the physical attributes and conditions of American cities and towns have been thoroughly documented and mapped over the course of the country’s young history. Yet very little of this information is accessible to the public in a direct way.
[IMAGE - BOSTON MAP 2017]
PARCi is a project that attempts to make historical spatial data available and accessible to the public. On the surface it is a simple visual platform that displays social and spatial information through maps and diagrams.
[VIDEO - BOSTON MAP 2017 DEMO]
Here we see contemporary data for Boston drawn from a variety of publicly available sources like the federal census, the city’s own parcel data, and the county’s assessment maps. At the most basic level, PARCi allows a general public user to access information about any mapped space in the city — any building, park, road, or open space. Spatial data ranges from property values and zoning districts to architects of record and building materials. Social data includes absolute and relative numbers for race, gender, and age down to the census block level; and data for income and education at the census tract level.
[IMAGE - BOSTON MAP 1814]
But the real power in PARCi is two fold. First, it includes historical maps for as many places and as many years for which we have data. So just like you could click on a building in the map of Boston in 2017 and get architectural data, so you can do the same for this map of Boston in 1814. The layering of these historical maps from various periods in history then allow the user to actively understand how spatial changes enact over time.
Second, PARCi allows users to comment on places at different points in history, effectively adding their own micro histories to the larger historical and spatial narrative. The attempt here is to create a database of stories, both social and spatial, that is accessible to all.
[IMAGE - JUST SPACE]
In closing, each of these projects represents a step towards a goal of enabling spatial justice, which is also a racial justice, through digital preservation of African-American history and the support of data transparency. Whether it is quantifying the spatial presence of African-Americans in cities and towns throughout the history of United States, illuminating the presence of African-American architects in the history of architectural practice, or sharing the historical and contemporary stories of black social space through maps and diagrams, each of these projects attempts to push back against the erasure of blackness by asserting, each in their own way, that Black Spaces Matter.
Each of these also illustrates a core concept for my research, my practice, and my teaching. A concept I refer to as just space. Is architecture, are our towns and cities, simply spaces that constitute the backdrops of our lives? How can we reveal the agency of spaces that matter for all of us? How can we create just spaces — places, whether physical or digital, that can enact social and spatial justice? How can we come to understand the world around us and the ground beneath our feet as more than just space?