Our very presence is a disruption. 1
— bell hooks
Once again, a national conversation is underway about the meanings and functions of race in American society. Although it has many antecedents, this current conversation is being driven by two flash points: the election of President Barack Obama, which was accompanied by a short-lived glimmer of hope that the country was prepared to acknowledge the abilities and contributions of Black people; and the subsequent election of President Donald Trump, which was prompted by the explicit stoking of deeply rooted race-based fears in White communities. This moment of “whitelash” has taken many aback and forced the search for new counterstrategies. 2 All of which has in turn propelled the rise of Black Lives Matter. 3 Building from the contemporary mobilization strategies of Occupy Wall Street, as well as from historical ones like those of Ella Baker and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, BLM has leveraged the police murder of eighteen-year-old Michael Brown, in August 2014, into an international movement for racial justice. Its fundamental proposition is deceptively simple: you cannot have a just society if an unarmed Black person’s life is not protected from state-sanctioned murder.
In this newly charged context, the current understanding of “the Black body” as a vital indicator of public health and safety, as well as of the effectiveness of policies affecting Black people collectively, suggests the degree to which politics is personal. BLM’s intersectional practices reflect this ongoing redefinition of politics in which people who have long been de-centered are re-centered — a trend anticipated more than three decades ago by bell hooks, when she argued that reclaiming and appropriating the definitions of “margin” and “center” were, in the context of White supremacy, acts of resistance. 4 In making visible the vulnerability of Black and brown individuals, BLM has demonstrated inclusivity while also unapologetically enabling those who were marginalized to become their most vocal proponents.
This progression — moving from the scale of the individual body to the scale of political power — offers exciting possibilities for Black planners and designers working with Black communities. Again, from hooks, writing on “architecture as culture practice”: “Many narratives of resistance struggle from slavery to the present share an obsession with the politics of space. Indeed, Black folks equated freedom with passage into a life where they would have the right to exercise control over space on their own behalf, where they would imagine, design, and create spaces that would respond to the needs of their lives, their communities, their families.” 5
In this era of manifest inequity and injustice, how can we remake our discipline so that Black Landscapes Matter?
Yet so far Black Lives Matter, as with many similar efforts, has not tied its broader aspirations to an awareness of the potential of Black urban and landscape designers and planners. In The Aesthetics of Equity, Craig L. Wilkins explores the disconnect between Black and brown empowerment writ large and the design professions; as he puts it: “how the marginalization of African Americans is authorized within the field of architecture.” 6 An inquiry into this disconnect is timelier than ever. For although there is significant creative production around BLM in music, fashion, and various forms of media, there has so far been little comparable response from the built environment professions, including landscape architecture. 7 It is time, then, to think not only about how landscape architecture, as currently constituted, can better serve Black communities, but also about how the profession might be radically reconceptualized. In this era of manifest inequity and injustice, how can we remake our discipline so that Black Landscapes Matter? Several historical episodes, ranging from the Carolinas to the nation’s capital, offer potent examples.
In the early 18th century, the Province of Carolina, as the British colony was then called, struggled to identify a cash crop that would generate high profits. Eventually White landowners learned that the climate and tidal action of the rivers surrounding the burgeoning settlement of Charleston were ideal for rice cultivation. It was in this era that the White planter John Williams began building the plantation that became known as Middleton Place on a large expanse of land on the Ashley River. Williams’s daughter married another planter, Henry Middleton, and for many scholars and historic preservationists, the story of Middleton Place begins with Henry’s desire to construct a dramatic riverfront entry that would impress his White visitors.
Middleton took his inspiration from a popular treatise, The Theory and Practice of Gardening, by the French courtier Dezallier d’Argenville. The plantation is most famous for its (former) Main House, a three-story brick manor sited on a bluff with rippling symmetrical terraces that descend to the main entrance, defined by a pair of sculpted “butterfly lakes.” 8 What is too often unacknowledged, however, is that the wealth that underwrote the plantation, and more broadly the economic boom of South Carolina, was produced by the cultivation of rice — the success of which was enabled by enslaved Africans.
Indeed, the early attempts by White planters to grow rice in the Carolinas were failures. Not only did the planters have little knowledge of or experience with rice-growing; they were also highly susceptible to the malaria that thrived in the swampy, low-lying region. It was only when White landowners learned of the Wolof people that their own fortunes began to change. 9 For generations, the Wolof (then referred to as Senegambians) had planted, harvested, and processed rice in what are now the West African nations of Senegal and the Gambia. But the Wolof did more than plant and tend the crop; they also perfected an intricate lock-and-flooding system in order to maximize its growth and yield. And for the Carolina planters, the Wolof offered biological as well technological advantages; many of them possessed the sickle cell trait, a genetic condition that not only causes red blood cells to mutate (into sickle shapes) but also produces an increased resistance to malaria — a characteristic that was then understood unscientifically and anecdotally.
The agricultural expertise and disease immunity of the Wolof people aligned with the economic needs and aggressions of the Carolina planters.
In these ways the agricultural expertise and disease immunity of the Wolof aligned with the economic needs and aggressions of the Carolina planters. By the time Henry Middleton was consulting the engravings of d’Argenville, so many Africans had been enslaved in South Carolina that the population was majority Black. In fact the extensive agricultural fields of Middleton Place were largely the work of Wolof farmers; during construction, the White owners and workers, fearful of malaria, decamped downriver to Charleston. Historians have identified remarkable similarities between rice cultivation in the Carolinas and in West Africa, from the indigenous strain of rice, the Oryza glaberrima, now known as “Carolina Gold”; to the deployment of the “African toe-heel” method to propagate the crop in wet soil; to the construction of dams and dykes with wooden gates to prevent saltwater infiltration; to the handmade implements for growing, weeding, harvesting, and processing.
As the historian Peter Wood has argued, “the problem faced by white Carolinians during the first and second generations of settlement was less one of imparting knowledge to unskilled workers than of controlling for their own ends black expertise which could … be readily turned against them.” 10 Or, as Judith Carney puts it, both the “brain and brawn of slave labor was being put to diligent use by planters.” 11 To date these historical narratives, which acknowledge the skill and ingenuity of enslaved Africans, have no correspondence in the literature or pedagogy of landscape architecture, which has long failed to recognize African and Black contributions to the wealth and power of this country.
There are more than 100 Historically Black Colleges and Universities across the nation; North Carolina boasts one dozen HBCUs, including Shaw University, in Raleigh, the first in the South. Although largely founded by White philanthropists to prevent Black students from attending Predominantly White Institutions, HBCUs have long played critical roles in grooming generations of American citizens — and some of their campus spaces were designed by Black architects and landscape architects.
The first professionally trained Black landscape architect was David Augustus Williston. Born in Fayetteville, North Carolina, in 1868, just three years after the end of the Civil War, Williston graduated from Cornell in 1898 with a degree in agriculture; he died in Washington, D.C., in 1962, just two years before the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act. His career was full and distinguished. 12 He designed campus plans for several HBCUs, including Alcorn State University, Fisk University, Lane College, Philander Smith College, and Clark Atlanta University. He had a long association with the Tuskegee Institute (now University). For two decades he collaborated with Robert R. Taylor, the first Black to graduate from the MIT School of Architecture, on the design of the Tuskegee campus; he was also on the faculty, teaching courses in horticulture and occasionally working with the agricultural scientist George Washington Carver, including on the landscape for the home of the institute president, Booker T. Washington.
It would be hard to overestimate the importance, for Black Americans, of the Yard at Howard University.
In 1930 Williston moved to Washington, where he designed the central gathering space for Howard University, better known as “The Yard.” It would be hard to overestimate the importance of this space for Black Americans; the quadrangle is enclosed by several buildings, including Founders Library, Frederick Douglass Memorial Hall, and Andrew Rankin Memorial Chapel, that have been the setting for major events and figures in the modern Civil Rights movement. It was in Founders Library — designed by the Black architect Albert Cassell — that the school’s law professors, including Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall, formulated the legal strategies that led to the groundbreaking 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which struck down the “separate but equal” doctrine that was the underpinning of Jim Crow. 13 Over the decades the campus quadrangle, edged with large trees, has become a gathering space for celebration and public dialogue, and also a crossroads, enabling interactions between Black people from across the nation and around the world. Here is alumnus Ta-Nehisi Coates remembering his alma mater, and the formative power of the university spaces in his own coming of age:
My only Mecca was, is, and shall always be Howard University. This Mecca, My Mecca — The Mecca — is a machine, crafted to capture and concentrate the dark energy of all African peoples and inject it directly into the student body. The Mecca derives its power from the heritage of Howard University, which in Jim Crow days enjoyed a near-monopoly on black talent. And whereas most other historically black schools were scattered like forts in the great wilderness of the old Confederacy, Howard was in Washington, D.C. — Chocolate City — and thus in proximity to both federal power and black power. I first witnessed this power out on the Yard, that communal green space in the center of the campus where the students gathered and I saw everything I knew of my black self multiplied out into seemingly endless variations. 14
Chavis Memorial Park
In 1935, municipal officials in Raleigh, the capital of North Carolina, leased from the state two dozen acres of open land on the edge of the South Park–East Raleigh neighborhood and, under the aegis of the Works Progress Administration, began planning for a new “Negro Park” — an all too common compensation for the exclusions of Jim Crow. 15 Not far from the site of the proposed new park was the 66-acre Pullen Park, whose offerings included baseball fields, a swimming pool, a carousel, and a zoo; founded almost 50 years earlier, on land donated by the White newspaper owner Richard Stanhope Pullen, the park was segregated. The “Negro Park” was thus part of a larger effort to plan a significant section of Raleigh’s Black district; as the city’s initial application to the WPA stated: “At present there are no recreational facilities or supervised playgrounds for our large colored population.” 16
Chavis Park was a regional attraction, understood to be one of the ‘safe places’ for Black people traveling between Atlanta and Washington.
By the opening day, local Black leaders had successfully petitioned to name the park for a free Black man, a Presbyterian minister and teacher who had lived and worked in Raleigh in the early 19th century, and in 1937 the John Chavis Memorial Park was officially dedicated. Located near Shaw University and another HBCU, St. Augustine’s University, Chavis Memorial Park has long served as the green heart of Raleigh’s Black community. It was also a regional attraction, understood to be one of the “safe places” for Black people traveling between Atlanta and Washington, and over the years a who’s who of Black political, sports, and entertainment figures visited Chavis Park. In their application to the National Register of Historic Places, park historians capture the wide range of recreational, social, and political activities that have been hosted in the park, and the meaning of the space for the Black community:
Shaw and Saint Augustine University football and baseball games; the post-Christmas Parade party; the WRAL TV teen dance show “Teenage Frolics”; Easter Egg Hunts; appearances by Angela Davis, H. Rap Brown, and Stokely Carmichael; church picnics; school reunions for Ligon and Washington high schools; Ligon High School sports events; Washington High School football games; family reunions; Ligon High School homecoming parades; Shriners parades; Civil Rights marches and meetings; outdoor gospel shows; African American sorority events; church homecomings; and Raleigh Grays and Raleigh Tigers Baseball games. Many interviewees spoke of their learning to swim in the Olympic-Sized pool, and having access to tennis facilities, which at one point was considered a sport for whites and people of privilege. 17
Chavis Memorial Park’s history as a site for political organizing is especially noteworthy today. In the spring of 1960, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was created at a conference organized at Shaw University by the activist Ella Baker. A longtime civil rights activist, and an alumna of Shaw (valedictorian of the class of 1927), Baker invited a group of young leaders, including Stokely Carmichael and John Lewis, to consider how the movement could become more radically democratic and participatory. For the rest of the decade, SNCC played a galvanizing role in organizing the Mississippi Freedom Rides, the March on Washington, and the rise of Black Power. It was a major precedent for Black Lives Matter. Longtime South Park–East Raleigh residents can recall that the planning and survival tactics employed in nonviolent direct action were rehearsed in Chavis Park, including sessions that trained Black women to handle threats by aggressive White males during political protests. 18
Black Wall Street
The history of Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma, is well documented, especially the notorious 1921 race massacre that devastated what was then the most prosperous Black community in the United States. But there was another, contemporaneous Black Wall Street that also demands attention. Starting at the turn of the 20th century, a four-block stretch of Parrish Street in Durham became a thriving center of Black commerce. The district’s rise was driven by two dynamic businesses: the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company, founded in 1898, and the Mechanics and Famers Bank, which opened ten years later. The two companies, both of which still exist, became so successful that eventually they underwrote and funded more Black land ownership and building construction than any other entities in the nation, and were two of the largest employers of Black Americans in history; by 1940, NC Mutual Life was the largest Black business in the world. 19
The success and enterprise of the district earned widespread recognition. In 1911, Booker T. Washington described Durham as the “city of cities to look for the prosperity of Negroes.” A year later, in “The Upbuilding of Black Durham,” W.E.B. Du Bois praised what appeared to be the strongest example of Black economic self-sufficiency in urban America; he was especially struck by what he called “the new ‘group economy’ that characterizes the rise of the Negro American — the closed circle of social intercourse, teaching and preaching, buying and selling, employing and hiring, and even manufacturing, which, because it is confined chiefly to Negroes, escapes the notice of the white world.” 20
If Parrish Street was the commercial center of Black Durham, the social and cultural heart of the community was located in the nearby neighborhood of Hayti, where many Black business leaders had built themselves fine residences. The Hayti district comprised Black schools, libraries, churches, and a hospital, and it was home to North Carolina Central University; all of which provided self-sufficient space for the cultivation of Black political leadership. In a tragic and all too familiar historical irony, it was the rise of this leadership that brought an end to Durham’s Black Wall Street. For years the city’s wealthy and powerful White leaders had tolerated and even encouraged the accumulation of Black economic influence; but the arrangement was governed by an unspoken “gentleman’s agreement”: Black enterprise could thrive, as long as Blacks did not protest against the prevailing Jim Crow rule.
There was an unspoken agreement: Black Wall Street could thrive as long as Blacks did not protest against Jim Crow.
The unholy agreement endured more or less until Brown v. Board of Education ruled that “separate but equal” was not equal at all. The Supreme Court decision prompted federal mandates for states to eliminate segregationist laws and practices, and it galvanized the Civil Rights movement. On February 1, 1960, four Black students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University occupied the lunch counter at Woolworth’s in downtown Greensboro. A week later seventeen Black students from North Carolina Central University staged another sit-in at the Woolworth’s in Durham. 21 It was after the Durham protest that Martin Luther King, Jr. first endorsed direct action as a valuable movement tactic; speaking at the White Rock Baptist Church, in Hayti, he lauded the students’ effort as a “creative protest [that] highlights the fact that segregation is the Negro’s burden and America’s shame.” 22
The Durham freeway remains a scar, dividing Hayti from downtown and perpetuating grievous generational harm to the city’s Black community.
As the sit-ins were happening and the Civil Rights movement gaining force on the ground, and as Black Wall Street was declining, the region’s economic engines upshifted with the establishment of the Research Triangle Park. Opened in 1959 with the goal of positioning North Carolina as a national leader in the information and technology sectors, the Research Triangle was strategically located near the major universities of Duke, North Carolina State, and UNC Chapel Hill; today the 7,000-acre development is the largest research/science park in the country. But its success was hinged not just to the proximity of educational institutions. Just as crucial in the planning of the RTP were connections to the (then) new Interstate Highway System — and when the White leaders of Durham planned the construction of the Durham Freeway, a significant stretch of the new expressway was routed directly through the Hayti neighborhood. Initially many in the Black community supported the project, which promised new federal funding for housing and local businesses. By the time the scale of the destruction became apparent, it was too late for effective protest; ultimately more than 4,000 residences and 500 businesses were demolished, and the promised reinvestment never materialized on any scale. Today, the Durham Freeway remains a scar dividing Hayti from downtown, perpetuating grievous generational harm to the city’s Black community. 23
In 1969, Floyd McKissick, one of the first Black graduates of the law school at UNC Chapel Hill, a longtime activist with the NAACP and former director of the Congress of Racial Equality, successfully lobbied President Richard Nixon, whose election campaign had hinged on the racist “Southern strategy,” to provide federal funding for a “Black New Town” in Warren County, North Carolina. 24 Then as now, the rural county was one of the poorest in the state; but the Research Triangle was just an hour’s drive south, and McKissick saw possibilities in the fallow farmlands.
The new town, dubbed “Soul City,” would be an industrial and logistics hub; it would also be a dynamic multiracial community developed and run by Blacks. In the upbeat language of a period advertisement, it would be “a clean, uncongested city,” where “people of all ages, races and religions work together. Play together. Learn together.” McKissick’s bold plan envisioned a city of more than 40,000 with 24,000 jobs, “economically sound and free of racism,” and by 1972 the project had received $14 million from the Model Cities program of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. 25 The firebrand lawyer turned developer hired the Black design firms Gantt/Huberman (whose partners included the future political leader Harvey Gantt) and Ifill, Johnson & Hanchard to design a master plan and a business center.
Soul City was undermined by the skepticism towards Black leadership that prevailed in the waning days of the liberal consensus.
Today all that remains of Soul City are a handful of structures and maybe a few hundred people (it’s now part of the unincorporated town of Manson); it resembles, in the words of critic Lee Bey, “a ghost town, rotting — or perhaps waiting.” 26 By 1979, when HUD withdrew its support and the project went into foreclosure, Soul City had been hampered by poor planning, noxious politics, and perceptions of impropriety. The project had attracted little more than a couple hundred residents; a “Soul Tech” incubator had failed to draw industrial or business tenants; the construction of roads and utilities was haphazard. At the same time the state’s segregationist U.S. senator, Jesse Helms, criticized the development as “an insult to the hard-pressed taxpayers of North Carolina” 27 and insisted upon a federal audit; the audit produced no evidence of malfeasance, but it discredited the project’s image. Ultimately Soul City was undermined by the skepticism towards Black leadership that prevailed in the waning days of the liberal consensus that had once driven federal programs like Model Cities. This skepticism would turn to outright hostility in the Reagan years, as one after another the country’s public social welfare programs were defunded or dismantled.
Yet today Warren County is significant for more than McKissick’s failed multiracial utopia; it is also the birthplace of the environmental justice movement. In the early 1980s, the state of North Carolina chose the small, mostly Black town of Afton as the site of a hazardous waste landfill for several thousand truckloads of soil polluted with polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs. As word spread around the state and beyond, a network of protestors mobilized, including members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; they deployed direct action tactics, from marching to rallying to physically occupying the roads to stop the trucks hauling the poison-laced soil. 28
Warren County is significant for more than the failure of Soul City; it is also the birthplace of the environmental justice movement.
The protests failed to stop the landfill, but the events in Warren County had drawn national attention from scholars and activists who were beginning to explore the connections between race and the siting of toxic facilities. One of the scholars was Robert D. Bullard, widely credited as the founder of the environmental justice movement, and author of the landmark Dumping in Dixie, which describes the Afton landfill as the event that galvanized Blacks “to treat their struggle for environmental equity as a struggle again institutionalized racism and an extension of the quest for social justice.” 29 One of the activists was Ben Chavis, director of the United Church of Christ’s Commission on Racial Justice — and as it happened, a descendant of John Chavis. In the mid 1980s, Chavis conducted and published a groundbreaking report, Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States, which used statistical analyses to show, for the first time, “that race is a major factor related to the presence of hazardous wastes in residential communities throughout the United States.” 30
For many years Black landscapes have been studied mainly within the contexts of historic preservation, cultural anthropology, and archeology. It’s time, then, to widen our disciplinary and pedagogical frames. How can we credibly understand American landscapes without digging into the legacy of slavery and plantation life, and reclaiming the active contributions of enslaved Africans in the creation of the agronomic practices and material wealth that supported the Confederacy? Or without acknowledging the social and political roles of the HCBU campuses, or of urban parks like Chavis Memorial? Or without taking account of the hard-won success of Black Wall Street within White supremacist cities, or the foundational role of Black leaders in the environmental justice movement?
What if it were possible to see yourself in the mainstream of the field even if you did not aspire to advanced White culture studies?
What if we started to tell different stories about landscape architecture, stories that recognized the power of physical places in catalyzing political and economic transformation? For a long time now most of our theory, history, and projects have applied European precedents to American design challenges. Moreover many of these precedents are landscapes of privilege, environments often as not underwritten by colonialist exploitation; thus we marvel at the art and craft, but edit the meaning and context. Palatial estates were the embodiment, the concretization, of powerful aristocracies. Manorial lands that were opened up to the masses in the capitalist era were social experiments that sought to “civilize” the working classes, to keep control and maintain the socio-economic hierarchies. A similar effort to maintain the hierarchies — albeit with increased ecological awareness — underlies much contemporary environmental design in American cities.
What if we expanded the canon to encompass the everyday landscapes of the non-powerful and non-wealthy? Can we envision a disciplinary version of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States? Can we envision A People’s History of Landscape Architecture that would incorporate the dynamics of race, class, gender, and power? What if it were possible to see yourself in the mainstream of the field even if you did not aspire to advanced White culture studies? What if we finally and fully granted the proposition that Black landscapes matter?