African American Architecture


The African House built by Marie Metroyer Coin-Coin. Photo used by permission from the Historic New Orleans Collection.

Africa is a sizable continent with a multitude of cultural traditions. The sum total of native African architecture is derived from indigenous African empires and states, and from imported European, Midwestern and Asian societies. The architecture is influenced by Moorish invasions, Egyptian pharaohs and all they engendered, nomadic foragers, hunter-gatherers, stable agricultural societies, desert dwellers, and ongoing tribal identities and conflicts, diverse religions, witchcraft and more.

Much of native architecture came from less profound sources.  Attempts at documenting the history of African architecture and understanding its influence on American architecture have resulted in ethnographic interpretations that have overlooked an amalgam of cognitive, cultural, and symbolic factors that provide implicit clues to African American architecture.

An architectural tradition heavily influenced by Africa must not be seen in a vacuum, but rather should be seen as a kaleidoscopic vision, in which diffusions manifest in numerous complex forms.

When one views African traits in American architecture before and after slavery, it becomes clear that the focus must be on special sensitivities. In terms of materials, techniques, and design, severe limits were placed on African American architects.

Within the range of these limitations there exists an undisturbed African American architectural tradition, one that has its roots in continental Africa architectural expressions.

Just as modern architectural marvels are identified with contemporary individual architects by name, so may indigenous structures be identified with individual artisans or groups of like-minded individuals.

There are many African artifacts, survivors in architecture. There are less common ones that represent the essence of African architectural tradition in a historical and cultural context and therefore warrant the most attention.

The indirect retentions of African building tradition are subtle and pervasive.  For example, plantation owners early in American history understood the power and symbolism possible in architecture and thus any attempt by enslaved artisans to draw upon African heritage was stifled.

In the 1930s the residents of St. Simons Island in Georgia recalled the attempts of an African American man named Okra to build a hut to house himself: “Ole man Okra he say he wahn a place lake he hab in Africa so he buil im a but…But Massuh make im pull in down. He say he aint wahn no African hut on he place.” [Drums and Shadows: 1940, 188].

Both the plantation owners and non-owners alike saw architecture as a way of controlling one’s life and destiny, through similarity, reinforcing the memory of a homeland and a sense of security in a hostile environment.  Thus, as soon as the control of the built environment passed to the African, the Europeans' position and sense of authority, control, and power were threatened.  The slave artisan was therefore denied the power of self-expression through architecture.  He had to create an African reality within a European design.  In other words, the African artisan Africanized a European structure to fix his African design.