African American Architecture : A Hidden Heritage

Joseph E. Holloway, Ph.D.

Attempts to documenting the history of African architecture and understanding its influences on American architecture has resulted in the ethnographic present interpretations which has overlooked the inherent continuity of cognitive, cultural and symbolism that provides clues to a tradition heavily influence by Africa. African American architecture must not be seen in a vacuum, but rather should be seen as a kaleidoscopic of diffusions that are manifested in numerous forms.  When viewing Africanism in American architecture before and after slavery, it becomes clear that the focus must be on special sensitivities, since in terms of material; technique, and design, severe limits were placed on African American architect.  Nonetheless within these spatial limitation exists an undisturbed African American architectural tradition that has its “roots” in African architectural design.

There are many African survivals in architecture, but there are the less common ones that represent the essence of African architectural tradition in a historical and cultural context, and thus warrant the most attention because the indirect retentions of African building tradition are subtle and pervasive.  For example, plantation owners early in American history understood the power and symbolisms possible in architecture, and thus any attempt of enslaved artisans to draw upon African heritage was prevented.  In the 1930s the residents of St. Simons Island in Georgia recalled the attempts of a African American man named Okra to build himself a hut: 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.

Unless one makes a concerted effort to look, African American contributions to the art of architecture goes unnoticed.  Historically, the slave artisan was afforded no change for self expression.  The paradox of southern slave participation in environmental affairs was that it always reflected the European culture base.  The reasons why and how this continual subjugation to European ideals occurred is obvious, as well as the resulting distaste for appreciation of African motifs. The only way to fully understand African content in American architecture is to strip away its superficial covering to discover its true foundation and aesthetic meaning.

According to Dagon philosophy the house serves as womb and a cradle from where culture is learned.  The house represents an image of a community and expresses a group’s social universe.  The power in which culture depends is derived from the house, and a cultural identity and personality can be understood by the concept of the house.  The importance of the house as a homeland identity still remains a viable concept in the black community planning today.  The Black town movement has yet to undergo thorough interpretive investigation by urban historians and urban planners.

As a response to atrocities of a violent hostile racist society, the advocates of self segregation saw black towns as important step towards security.  The black town ideology south to combine economic self help and moral uplift with racial pride.  Black town’s movement came from the realization of the American “melting pot” only melted for those of European heritage.  In response to American racism numerous black town grew.  They included: Nicodemus, Kansas (1879); Mound Bayou, Mississippi (18870; Langston City, Oklahoma (1891); Clear view, Oklahoma (1903), and Boley, Oklahoma (1904) Backdom, New Mexico; Hobson City, Alabama; Allensworth, California, and Rentiesville, Oklahoma.

Archeological investigation of the Black townships and the sizes, materials and relative proximity of houses, the hierarchy of building placement and artifact found clearly demonstrates and African origin and shows how an African design has remained paramount in the Black architectural experience in America.

In Plymouth Massachusetts, archaeology was the primary means of investigating a small black town call New Guinea.  Partings Way, as it is now called today, was the home of an exslave by the name of Cat Howe, who gain his freedom after serving in the Battle of Bunker Hill.  On March 12, 1792, the town of Plymouth granted a strip of 20 rods wide and about a mile and a half long to any person who would clear the land.  Howe joined by Prince Goodwin Plato Turner, and Quamany established a community on this land.  Excavations showed that mud walling was reminiscent of African building techniques, and an African design was evident.  The size of the house and placement of fenestration allowed scholars to trace the style to the Yoruba’s of West Africa.  The house type is known is the “Shotgun” house. There are more of these types houses in Alexandria, Louisiana than any other parts of the American South.

The Shotgun house is a central building type of African American architecture.  The shotgun house, beyond its form, is a perfect example of the subtle and pervasive spatial sensitivities that exist in African American architecture.  The shotgun house is considered architecture of defiance for its assertion of cultural heritage; the shotgun is a derivative of African sources.  The word shotgun itself is derived from the Yoruba word to-gun. In Yoruba this word means place of assembly, or where people gather. People living in shotgun houses have no privacy, internally prolonged, immediate interaction with one another occurs, or one lingers on the porch.  The shotgun exemplifies the West and Central African region’s rectangular house in proxemic dimensions which creates intimate spatial living conditions.

Based on a two room module which measures 10x20 feet, the shotgun is rectangular, one room wide, and up to three rooms deep.  With the exception of the Camelback, which is the addition of a second story at the back, and the double shotgun, which is two shotguns place side-to-side, the single shotgun is one story high with the gable front facing the street.  Verandas or front porches are usually attached.  Verandas and front porches were also African derived.

Scholars believe that this tradition may have originated from Yorubaland via Haiti to the American South.  A large number of Yorubas were to Haiti in 1810, and they might have been responsible for the similarity between the shotgun and Yoruba house types.  Whatever the connection the architectural links between Port-au-Prince and New Orleans cannot be denied.  All of the nonessential details that are associated with the shotgun in Haiti are also associated with the shotgun in Louisiana.

Africans brought with them to the New World the ability to use wood, metals, earth, and stone.  Their ability to adapt indigenous materials, made them indispensable as workers for Euro-Americans.  A prime example of a disguised or unrecognized African architectural influence is the porch.  A common feature in many areas of West and Central Africa, the porch is an African contribution to American architecture as a whole.  Pierce Lewis writes “it was long before southerners can bring themselves to attach porches to their Georgina Town houses.  Albert Simmons indicates that porches did not become common until after the 1790s, when refugees from Haiti arrived in Charleston.”[Vlach: 137] Caribbean origins have also been cited for verandas found in French buildings in the Mississippi Valley from New Orleans to Kahokia Illinois.  It is not inconceivable that millions of enslaved Africans upon whom Euro-Americans were depended taught their masters more about tropical architecture than they would be willing to acknowledge.

Enslaved artisans played a major role in the economic and physical development of the American South.  Enslaved Africans were responsible for the design and construction of both the Plantation house and the slave quarters.  In fact, the oldest landmark in Greenville, Georgia, Windsor Hall was designed and built by Isaiah Wimbush, a slave artisan.  The prevalence of certain African architectural characteristics such as steep, sloping hip roofs, central fireplace, and porches suggest that elements of African architecture may have been introduced by slave builders.

On the Sea Island coast of Georgia, enslaved Africans developed a building material called Tabby,” a burnt lime and seashell aggregate used prolifically as building material for walls, fences, and roadways. On the Island of St. Helena there are some old ruins from the Spanish era still standing.  The Brick Street Baptist church foundation was constructed out of this tappy material as well as the graveyard head stones in the graveyard of the Penn Center, to the Slave hospital at the Retreat Plantation on St. Simons Island, Georgia.

Structures using African technological know how and skills are found in the slave quarters at Keswick Plantation, and the Africa House on the Melrose Plantation in Natchitoches, Louisiana near the Cane River.  The slave quarters at Keswick, near Midlothian, Virginia, constructed around 1750 were made with the African tradition of hand made burnt clay bricks by plantation slaves.  The slave quarters are reminiscent of the circular structures of Kasai Province in Zaire.  The African House on the Melrose Plantation, also built with bricks baked on the property, unlike the Keswick slave quarters is more African in its architectural structure, content, form and design. The Africa house utilizes characteristics such as a steep sloping roof and wide overhands, formed with hand cut timber reflects the rectangular huts so common in the Kongo. It was built in the spirit of African architectural tradition and stands as symbols of the resilient strength of the African spirit.  The fact that the African House was built by the owner Maria Theresa Coin-Coin, who was born in the Kongo might help to explain its Kongo design.

Thomas Day, a cabinetmaker and architectural interior woodwork designer from Milton, North Carolina, born around 1801 was the fifth wealthiest man in the county according to the 1850 federal census record.  Although servicing an exclusively white clientele, he was able to create African influenced products.  Using carving techniques that required “set-in” elements and an anthropological ordering of scale, he was able to reflect the African carving tradition of the Bakongo of Zaire.

As African American architecture became more professionalized, the African American architects struggled with the paradox of entering the main stream of American architectural thought, thus producing projects that denied their culture base, associating themselves with the dominant culture, as oppose to producing project emblematic of their African and African American heritage.  For the most part, early black architects executed conservative classical designs deep in the African architectural traditions.  In time Black architects tried to make their designs to reflect white American cultural values.

One early African American, professionally trained, architect whose work reflected Euro-Americans ideals is Vertner Woodson Tandy, Sr.  Born May 17, 1885 in Lexington Kentucky Vertner.  He was the son of a building contractor, who was educated at the Chandler School in Lexington and the Tuskegee Institute, Alabama, and then at Cornell between 1905-1908.  His architectural training began with his father, Henry Tandy’s successful contracting business, which serviced a white clientele.  The academic objective of his curriculum at Tuskegee was primarily delineation, then building construction and architectural design.  Whereas, at Cornell, the teaching methods of the Ecole des Beaux Arts, stressed design and practical matters were accorded secondary importance.  Tandy’s solution for the out door swimming pool and pavilion, sponsored by the Society of Beaux Arts architects showed the absorption of French design techniques with an African geometric ordering of space, axis, cross-axis, and porch space.  Maden C. J. Walker, the hair products millionaires, commissioned two major buildings by Tandy, a Harlem townhouse, and Villa Lewaro (1913) located at Irvington on the Hudson.

African American architects attempted to incorporate African architectural designs into the plantations and many buildings they built, thus creating an African presence. African American buildings and early structures were transmitters of this culture.  They transmit the culture of the past into the living present, which served as monuments for the future. African American architecture testifies to the aspirations of people, who tried to maintain a link with their ancestral homeland and African past. Their buildings tell not the official, but the private history of a people, and reveal their cultural traditions and heritage through architecture.  It symbolizes the unending struggle of a people determine to tell their story and express themselves through the medium of art. Thus, to transmit the old to the new via their African heritage and culture.   As a direct result of this struggle by African Americans to tell their story through architecture, American has been greatly enriched by African experience in American architecture—the hidden heritage.



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