When I signed on to teach a course entitled The Architecture of American Slavery at Roger Williams University in spring, 2016, I did not expect the Black Lives Matter movement to be relevant. I thought the course would be about the infrastructure surrounding American slavery, and its present-day remnants. But as it turns out, the Black Lives Matter movement is tied to the architectural legacy of American slavery in more ways than I had thought.
I spent the 2015-16 academic year filling in for a good friend and colleague as a Visiting Associate Professor in Historic Preservation at RWU, in Bristol, RI. I have taught preservation classes off and on during the fifteen years I have lived in Rhode Island. Outside academia, I am deeply involved in researching the history of Rhode Island's built environment, particularly its sites associated with African-Americans and women. As such, I am constantly searching for interesting projects with pedagogical applications. Relative to the depth of its history, Rhode Island is vastly under-researched. Finding things to study is not hard.
Rhode Island's African-American spaces are especially under-researched. With a white population of 96.3%, Bristol, RI, is not particularly diverse. The next largest racial subgroup is Hispanic, at 1.3%. African-Americans make up 0.6% of the population. (1) As a result, white -oriented architectural history tends to dominate. Yet, Bristol was ground zero for the RI slave trade and home to the DeWolfe family, who ran one of the most profitable slave-trading enterprises in the country during the Colonial era. DeWolfe buildings dot Bristol's landscape, creating an interesting and often uncomfortable relationship with present-day life. For example, the DeWolfe warehouse, where slaves and slave goods were stored, is now an upscale restaurant (Figure 1). The history of the DeWolfes themselves is well told, but the African-American side is left out. I have long thought that a class on Bristol's African-American architecture would be really interesting.
When it looked like my spring semester schedule would have room for a special topics class, I pitched the idea to my dean, Stephen White. Originally titling the course The Landscape of Northern Slavery, I briefly outlined a syllabus that would explore the spatial aspect of the town's slave trading past. It was an "off" idea and somewhat controversial, not one I thought he'd go for. However, Steve really liked it--a lot, and far more than any of the other ideas I had. He not only saw the merits of the class but didn't object to its material. And, he was extremely enthusiastic. His support was key, as was the interest of the students. Like every professor offering a special topics class, I feared that the course wouldn't make minimum enrollment. But, it filled in the first two days of registration.
Like its hometown, RWU ("R-Dubs") also does not have a diverse student population. 73% of the university is white, 5% Latino, 2.5% African-American, 2.2% Asian and 1% Native American (the remaining percent is unknown). Its minority populations are below the national averages. (2) Its faculty is not much better: 89% is white, 2.8% Latino, 2.5% Asian, 2.4% African-American, and .5% Native American. Given these demographics, it came as no surprise that I had only one person of color, an international student from Turkey, among my 19 students. About half were graduate students and half were undergraduate seniors. All but two were architecture majors; the remaining two were historic preservation majors.
The lack of diversity within the class was something I had anticipated in advance. About a week after pitching the course to Steve, it occurred to me that The Landscape of Northern Slavery couldn't be understood outside the context of plantation or Southern slavery. And, I could not count on university students in a northern small town to be familiar with the intricacies of plantation architecture. The course would have to take a broader approach to the idea of slavery, its architectural imprint on our landscape, and the results of that imprint today. I called Steve back and asked if we could enlarge the scope of the course to The Architecture of American Slavery. This title would offer more room to maneuver within the topic. He agreed. The course was born.
From its start, I wanted to take a long view of the subject and to define both "architecture" and "slavery" very broadly. Having begun with the idea of northern slavery, I never intended to limit the course to Southern plantations. While the lens of Southern plantations might be useful in examining the universality of slave architecture, it lacked sufficient richness to last thirteen weeks. There wasn't enough scholarship and field trips would be impossible. I feared that the course would be a monotonous death march of "if it's March 3, it must be [fill in the blank] plantation." A long view was absolutely necessary.
More importantly, the long view created the opportunity to draw connections between the past and the present. As an architectural historian, I consider the past architecture that surrounds us as a vibrant part of our lives. But, most students don't view it that way. They need to be taught to recognize the connections between past and present, as well as how contemporary architecture riffs upon (or rebels against) older buildings. If I limited the topic to plantations only, all of which were remote to our location, that's all students would see. They would never learn how these particular choices in shaping space reverberate around us today. In order to teach them this, I defined "the architecture of slavery" to include not just plantation houses and slave quarters but every space and landscape in which economic apparatus of slavery took form, including sugar houses, cotton mills, universities, missions, and public housing.
The breadth of this definition allowed me to engage with several readings I wanted to cover. A key part of slavery's architectural legacy revolves around the "40 acres and a mule" question of reparations. I wanted to talk about the environmental component of that issue through the lens of contemporary thinkers, presently represented by Ta-Nehisi Coates and his article, "The Case for Reparations." (3) What should be done now about slavery is an important, residual question. I also wanted to engage with a project entitled Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North, by Katrina Brown, a descendent of the DeWolfe family (Figure 2). (4) Her film raised significant questions about the extent to which white people today are responsible for actions taken by their ancestors; Bristol was featured prominently in it. Browne's work tackled the question of white guilt head on. I felt students should hear her thoughts on the matter.
I divided the course into five relatively short units: Mission, Plantation...