The Intersection of Design and Social Justice in Black America - Pacific Standard

The Intersection of Design and Social Justice in Black America

A conversation with Michelle Joan Wilkinson about the exhibit she curated for the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture.
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Tourists move past the Smithsonian Museum of African American History & Culture.

Tourists move past the Smithsonian Museum of African American History & Culture. 

The underground history galleries of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture are separated by two transitional years: 1877, the year Reconstruction ended, and 1968, a year that was, as the museum's website notes, "a turning point in the African-American freedom movement." This was the year that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and it was the year that the first elected African-American mayors of major cities in the United States took office: Carl Stokes in Cleveland and Richard Hatcher in Gary, Indiana.

It's also the starting point for the museum's exhibition, "A Changing America: 1968 and Beyond," for which Michelle Joan Wilkinson serves as a curator, along with co-curator William Pretzer. It's through the lenses of architecture and design that she has chosen to base much of her work. This is seen most vividly in the section of the exhibit titled "Shifting Landscapes: Cities and Suburbs."

In that showcase, visitors can view a replica of the old Chicago "Mr. Muse Bar," a speakeasy that Isaiah Muse ran out of his home when African Americans weren't welcomed in other upscale Chicago bars and entertainment venues. Visitors can also see a non-replica segment of brick wall and metal door from the Baxter Terrace housing projects of Newark, New Jersey, which no longer stands. The capsule attached to it includes the quote, "The city is the black man's land," the title of a text from James and Grace Lee Boggs, written in 1966. Nearby is the August 3rd, 1970, edition of Newsweek with the face of Newark's first African-American mayor Kenneth Gibson on the cover next to the headline: "The Black Mayors: How Are They Doing?"

The "Shifting Landscapes" section tells the story of how African Americans began reframing their relationships with cities in the early 1970s, especially in the North. In the decades prior, African Americans flocked from the South, escaping racial terror and pursuing jobs in the North's industrial urban centers. They were packed into racially segregated quarters of these cities, in housing and neighborhoods that were not designed for optimizing quality of life. After years of economic neglect, political chicanery, police brutality, and other racial conflagrations, many African Americans began venturing out of the cities into the suburbs. Others took flight back down South, turning cities such as Atlanta and Houston into "black meccas."

Wilkinson's collecting work examines the roles of black architects, designers, and planners during this time period. Her inspiration: her grandfather, who was not a licensed architect but built the home that her grandparents lived in in Guyana, and also supervised civil engineering projects, such as bridge and dam construction, and government-sponsored housing.

"In countries like Guyana, across the African Diaspora, and elsewhere, people design and build their own homes all the time, without being called architects," wrote Wilkinson in a recent edition of The International Review of African American Art. "Yet scholars often discuss the innovative work of black builders as a function of skilled labor, rather than an intellectual engagement with architecture and design."

CityLab spoke with Wilkinson at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture to discuss her work in the "1968 and Beyond" exhibition, and the role of design and social justice in its collections.

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Why was it important to have a section on cities and suburbs in the "A Changing America" exhibition?

When I came on board in 2014, the general layout of the exhibit was already designed. At first it was just going to be about cities, but we decided that it really needed to be more about cities and suburbs. That's why there's this sort of divided space in the section where on the left-hand side we're looking at the suburbs and basically migration within the U.S. as black people.

To leave suburbs out would have been an incomplete story, because if you're only focusing on the city you're missing where people are going to when they move. This was an era when a lot of people are moving outside of inner cities to surrounding outer rings, and so we capture that full experience of black America from that era and where they are. Not only are white Americans moving out of inner cities but black Americans are also, and by the '70s there's a reverse migration out of northern cities, with people starting to move back to the south.

We're also looking at the 1980s when there’s this migration of people coming in from the Caribbean, and black people moving in from the African continent, and so we're looking at the changing dynamic of being a black person in an urban environment. What does that look like? We're also telling stories about Afro-Latino populations moving in and engaging with African Americans in these urban spaces. It's not simply about cities and suburbs, it's about that movement.

You said your work at the Smithsonian has been influenced by the social justice themes of the Black in Design conference at Harvard University's Graduate School of Design and the National Organization of Minority Architects. What did you learn there?

What those conferences did is they really looked at the aspects of our everyday life and how issues of food, transportation, urban planning, and design are connected to the daily experience of African Americans. They also showed the ways in which design and planning can be used either to create a better experience for people, or to limit the options that they have.

I came away from those conferences having a better sense of what types of opportunities our museum had for our collections. There are stories of inequality that we were already telling, but it was helpful to use the lens of design to highlight the ways that these experiences had been created to keep people in a certain place and to limit their options.

Are there currently any other examples of the intersection between social justice and design currently on display at the museum?

Our work is not only about archiving objects related to design and designers and architects, but also about the way we tell the story and highlight design.

One example of that is the Soul City display. When I first came to the museum, we were looking at what stories we would share for that. When I was looking at our collections items, one of the sets of items I came across were brochures and promotional materials from Soul City, and it was through those materials that I started learning about that development.

That storyline is not specifically about social justice, but it brings in the idea that there was a planned community that did target African Americans. It talks about the relationship between cities and suburbs in that section, but it's also about a place where, at least through the promotional materials, African Americans are front and center, which is not something that we often get to see visually represented. Being able to include that story in our section on subdivisions and planned communities was significant.

What my hope is is that as we move forward with collecting we can tell additional stories like that, but also tweak the framework of how we're telling those stories so that design and planning is more highlighted. We do talk about urban renewal and planning in that section, but it's in a more general way.

There's a history of African Americans involved in design and architecture that doesn't get a lot of exposure. Talk more about what you included in your collections to surface this work.

There's a section on Paul Williams, who is probably the best known black architect of the 20th century, but he also worked on municipal projects. He worked on a subdivision in Las Vegas in the 1950s, (Berkley Square) and one of the decisions I made was to include an image from that development because it continued to be an African-American community into the 1960s, which was the period the "1968 and Beyond" exhibition covered.

The first section of the exhibition is about the Black Power era, where we look at different things like religion, the Vietnam War, the Black Arts movement, and other events of that period. There's also a section called "Class and Consciousness" where we're looking at what African Americans were doing in addition to protesting and demonstrating, or becoming active in political organizations. In the section on faith there's an image from the First African Methodist Episcopal church in Los Angeles. Williams was commissioned to do a new building for the church and the photograph of this in our collection shows the laying of the cornerstone.

To have an image related to this historic occasion in 1968, where a black community is commissioning a new church designed by a black architect, and to have Paul Williams standing in the photograph among the church members is significant. But again the storyline there is not so much about his design, but about his work within the larger context of community development, and the ways in which a church becomes a space that African Americans have control of.

Talking about urban planning in America often involves African Americans discussed only as victims, usually with regards to segregation, gentrification, or urban renewal. How important is it these stories also show African Americans as agents and creators in the history of urban planning?

It's really crucial. The reason I'm interested in design is because it's a lot of decision making and decisions that affect a lot of people. Design is everywhere and we're making sure that, as a museum, we can spotlight and highlight African Americans who have been part of those processes or who have worked to improve those processes when they've had negative effects on African Americans.

Calling attention to people who've had an influence on the built environment and on our material culture is something we already do as a museum, but one of my goals is to use the vocabulary of architecture and design to highlight those instances and people in those professions.

This story originally appeared on CityLab, an editorial partner site. Subscribe to CityLab's newsletters and follow CityLab on Facebook and Twitter.

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