Pratt Institute School of Architecture and School of Liberal Arts & Sciences

In Search of African-American Space

Abolitionist Landscapes


Yolande Daniels

Blindspots: Cultural Difference and Spatial Play 

The projects compiled as Blind-spots explore the boundaries of architectural subjects and forms while also seeking to redefine the limits of social advocacy in architecture. In each project, blindspots were discovered in researching the context of architectural forms through the often imperceptible connections of dislodged social narratives that index the present to the past and meaning to the built environment.  

This work has by necessity explored ways to define new descriptive terms and forms in architecture and the built environment. So often the past of racialized subjects in the United States has not been recorded, or, not built of durable materials, or, not considered worth saving; therefore, the very lack of material effects and the revaluing of materials and objects are a central charactersitic of these works.  

Completed over a ten year period, the projects are characterized by the mix of scholarship and explorations of form and media as informed by architecture, art, and the play of forms across media. In the pursuit of expression of an idea, media is a flexible variable. 

The following brief synopsis serves as an introduction to the projects – Silent Witness, Intimate Landscapes (of the Shotgun House), de Facto/de Jure: by Custom/by Law, black city2: the miscegenation game, MoCADA, and Mitan – and provides insight into my working process.  

In this group, several of the installations were exhibited in group shows that resulted from invitations by a curator/architect to African-American architects and academics, and the last two projects included illustrate how the interests and sensibilities outlined are given form when the primary directive is client-driven. Although defined by the program of the client, the development of these projects was the result of previously conducted research that not only answered but expanded the mandate of the program. As with the independently initiated projects, this expansion was enabled by the support of my practice, as well as academic and institutional fellowships and grants, thereby exceeding the bounds of the standard architectural contract.


Frank Decker

Plymouth Church and the Underground Railroad

  1. Based on original research in the Plymouth Church archive, the talk will situate the role of the church in the international abolition of slavery movement.  The church was gathered as a Congregational Church in June 1847 by men and women New Englanders, who had moved to New York City for jobs and were living in Brooklyn. They called Henry Ward Beecher to be their minister, and, when he arrived, he preached that they should apply their faith to the issues of the day, notably slavery.  With a ministry of freedom, the church grew quickly, attracting many like-minded people. 
  2. Among the abolitionist missions of Plymouth Church was helping self-emancipated people escape slavery on the Underground Railroad.  New York City and Brooklyn across the East River were important stations on the route from the slave states of Maryland, Delaware and Virginia to freedom in Canada and other points in the North. Some of the formerly enslaved made their way by land, either walking or riding by train or wagon, while others came up the coast by ship from the South. Plymouth Church was a destination for dozens of formerly enslaved Africans and became known as the Grand Central Depot of the UGRR due to its central position. 
  3. The means of escape was analogized to a railroad out of sight because it was illegal for people to help the formerly enslaved fleeing from slavery. Some of the self emancipated people were hidden in its cellar or meetinghouse and then accompanied north by friends of the church. Reverend Beecher was personally involved with the people who were fleeing slavery.  Others were helped through the New York State Vigilance Committee, an organization of blacks and whites who helped the self emancipated to flee slavery and, importantly, protected free blacks from being kidnapped by slave catchers. 
  4. The escape of 15-year old Ann Maria Weems, aided by Plymouth member Lewis Tappan and others in the fall of 1855 describes the escape of a girl, disguised as a boy, from Washington, DC, to freedom in Canada. 
  5. Plymouth Church member Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a significant force in the abolition of slavery as was Henry Ward Beecher’s diplomacy in France and England. Sojourner Truth also spoke at the church in a moving talk that highlighted the importance of the church in the view of abolitionists.  
  6. Brooklyn became a significant destination for the formerly enslaved and has emerged as one of the leading Black communities in the nation due in part to the hospitality that was extended by the Plymouth Church congregation. 


Ann Holder is Associate Professor of History at Pratt in the department of Social Sciences and Cultural Studies, where she was also coordinator of the Major in Critical and Visual Studies from 2006-2008. She taught previously at UMass Boston, Hampshire College, Emerson College, Framingham State University and Harvard University, and was a research fellow at the WEB DuBois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard. She is completing work on a long-term book project, Making the Body Politic: Race, Sexuality and the Contests of Citizenship in the Post-Emancipation United States.

Antebellum urban practices of vernacular citizenship among both enslaved and technically ‘free’ African Americans give materiality to Saidiya Hartman’s conception of “politics without a proper locus.” These insurgent practices also expose the foundations of ‘proper politics’ in the United States: the assumption that citizenship rests on the ownership of property, an anxious autonomy that deliberately severs rights-bearing subjects from the vicissitudes and complexities of community interests, and from the labor that secures their individual status. 

As Hartman shows, in this definition of liberal citizenship, there was no proper sphere for the articulation of political subjectivity among the enslaved, because they were viewed as property, with no claim to any space—whether material or metaphorical—that was their own. While her formulation is a crucial caution against romanticizing resistance, and a powerful critique of republicanism founded on a slave regime, it also calls our attention to the embattled counter-narratives of subjectivity that, while impossible within politics proper, produced a politics of impropriety, always perilous and ephemeral, but tenacious. The locus was the historical Black City. 

This paper will focus on Richmond, Virginia, where from “throwing stones” or smoking in the street, to Sunday afternoon promenades, underground schools and mutual benefit societies, African Americans in pre-Civil War Richmond created an insurrectionary form of collectively, an unrecognized vernacular citizenship. Elite white Richmonders did their best to render these practices either marginal or invisible, categorizing signs of Black subjectivity as insolent and disorderly, while creating a ‘southern culture’ that erased the signs of their dependence on the labor of humans living in bondage. The historical record reveals the extent of their power, but also the markers of their failure. 

The Underground Railroad, among other signs of embattled subjectivity both historical and contemporary, only becomes legible through these counternarratives of determined citizenship. Anger, persistence, fear and creativity combined to create tenuous and fleeting maps toward freedom that began with but always exceeded the hope of emancipation. 


Allison Guess

This essay draws on the wisdom of several scholar-activists within the Black radical tradition (some of whom are Black geographers) and highlights historical Black revolutionary struggles across various Black geographies. Serving as a call to action for modern-day abolitionist, and other revolutionaries, this essay urges us to work across geographic divides. Drawing on CLR James’s Black Jacobins, I underscore what I have identified as the urgent-insurgent character and intellectualism of the Black radical tradition (Robinson, 1983). Highlighting the Black radical tradition, as an epistemological project and architecture that has always upheld merger, flight and thus abolition, I portray a sort of winning streak within Black revolutionary struggles for liberation. The later part of this presentation is a critical meditation on Audre Lorde’s declarative essay, “Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” and how we must continue to build from here on out.


Rodney Leon, founder and principal of Rodney Leon Architects PLLC has an architectural background as a designer on a diversity of building types including housing, churches and transportation projects in the U.S. and abroad. Rodney Leon is the designer of the African Burial Ground Memorial in New York City which is the only National Monument in the United States dedicated to the contributions of people of African descent. Mr. Leon has focused his professional efforts and developed an expertise in modern “Culturally Contextual” design, Master Planning and Mixed Use Housing Development for faith based and international development organizations.Current projects include the Gospel Assembly Church, the King Emmanuel Baptist Church Senior Housing and Community Center and the historic Convent Avenue Baptist Church expansion. In addition, Mr. Leon has developed and is partnering with manufacturers to design and implement sustainable “Green” housing development models for emerging global economies. The first such project is the 24 acre, mixed use “Belle Rive” Residential Development in Jacmel, Haiti. Rodney Leon is also currently developing a Master Planning solution for Haiti centered upon the concept of Memorialization and Re-forestation entitled “The HiBIscus Project.” In addition, he is involved in a professional collaboration with 3 other architects on efforts to provide transitional housing for displaced families in Haiti through an initiative entitled the “Haiti SOFTHOUSE.”

He received his Bachelor of Architecture degree from Pratt Institute School of Architecture in 1992 and his Masters of Architecture from Yale University in 1995. He has also been a Visiting Design professor at Pratt Institute School of Architecture from 1998 to 2003. He has served as 2nd Year Design Coordinator for Pratt in 2003 and has served as an Adjunct Professor of Advanced Design.


Scott Ruff is a Visiting Associate Professor of Architecture at Pratt Insitute and the Tulane University School of Architecture. Ruff received his first professional Bachelors of Architecture degree from Cornell University (1992) and a Masters of Architecture II from Cornell University (1995). Ruff is the principal of RuffWorks Studio, a research and design studio specializing in culturally informed projects and community engagement. He is currently working on a forth coming book “In Search of African-American Space”, Routledge Press. Other publications include articles in Thresholds, “Signifiyin: An African-American Language to Landscape”, “Spatial ‘wRapping’: A Speculation on Men’s Hip-Hop Fashion”

African-American Spatial(ized) Tropes

In this lecture three major themes will be presented, the first two are: Booker T. Washington’s Industriousness and W.E.B. DuBois concept of “Double Consciousness” and DuBois sub-theme of “the Veil”. These two concepts set a framework in which to engage African-American Architectures from the mundane to the monumental in an intellectual and critical context born from within African-American culture. The slave cabin, the plantation, the shotgun house, the small town/ neighborhoods, Tuskeegee Institute to the Harvey Gantt Museum in North Carolina and the African- American Historical Museum in Washington D.C. will be positioned as spatial constructs that operate within the multi layered dualities of Washington’s Industriousness and DuBois’ Double Consciousness. The two concepts interplay between literal manifestations to abstracted translations in many of the architectural and cultural artifacts referenced. The third theme is “Sankofa”, the Ghanaian concept of looking back, reconnecting to ones roots/ place of origin. This is a theme that often manifests as a narrative in the conception of civic works but even exists in the vernacular constructions as they adhere to traditional parameters. Finally the lecture positions “The Underground Railroad” as part of a larger narrative of migration and freedom that operates as part of the African-American cultural ouvre. 

Note: Although there are many more strategies and tactics that one can identify in African-American works, these three are most prevalent. These concepts are not presented as formula or a “litmus test” of or for Blackness (African-Americaness).


Brian Purnell teaches in the Africana Studies program and history department at Bowdoin college in Brunswick, Maine. He is a public historian who has worked with the Brooklyn Historical Society, the Brooklyn Public Library, and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, among other institutions. His first book was _Fighting Jim Crow in the County of Kings: The Congress of Racial Equality in Brooklyn._ Currently, he is writing a first-person, oral history-driven biography called, The Narrative of Jitu Weusi (Leslie Campbell): Brooklyn’s Black Power Educator. He is also writing an African American history of New York City since the 1500s tentatively called, _Struggle and Progress._ 

Earl Lewis, the noted historian of twentieth century U.S. cities, noted how urban African Americans never passively, or willingly, accepted racial discrimination, but instead acted in ways that “turned segregation into congregation.” Generations of Black people in Brooklyn, from the slavery era though the Black Power Movement, and even into the present, have created, maintained, preserved, and promoted Black spaces and places. These spaces and places changed over time. They had dynamic relationships with, and connections to, the larger cultures, politics, and economics in which they existed. At times, life in Black spaces and places paralleled the patterns of life in the larger city. At other times, Black spaces and places defined themselves in opposition to dominant social trends. This presentation will explore the history of Black spaces and places in Brooklyn during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries through four main examples: the independent Black community of Weeksville; the sections of Ebbets field where Black fans congregated, especially after 1947; the Black churches of Brooklyn during the mid-twentieth century; and the Black Nationalist movement center called, The East, which existed from 1969 through the mid-1980s. Black spaces and places in Brooklyn have never sat still. They always adjusted to confront the political and economic needs; and to reflect the diverse and dynamic cultures of the borough’s Black people.     


Marisa Williamson is an New York-based performance and video artist. She received her BA from Harvard University and her MFA from California Institute of the Arts. She was a participant in the Whitney Museum’s Independent Study Program in 2014-2015, and attended the Shandaken Project at Storm King in 2015, ACRE Summer Residency in 2014, and the Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture in 2012. Her work is regularly shown in Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago.

Sally Hemings: On Fugitivity and Stasis 

Marisa Williamson’s project as an artist is to explore and interpret through performance, video, objects and images, the ways that soft technologies—‘problem solving tools’ like narrative, mythology, and community, along with hard technologies such as the the Triangle Trade, cotton gin, moving image, and the web—facilitate the rendering and surrendering of the physical and psychological body over time. 

Williamson has been working with the character of Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson’s slave and mistress, for over three years. She is a conjured ghost, meant to unsettle and refuse easy interpretation. Her story is not that of a runaway or revolutionary, but speaks of the creativity, survival, endurance, and forced intimacy that constitute so much of everyday life and the quest freedom, then and now. 

Sally Hemings’ does not travel on the Underground Railroad. Her journey to freedom can be mapped on top of the blueprints to Monticello, back and forth across the Atlantic, in the city of Paris, over time, and choreographed in the kitchen, the bedroom, and up and down the stairs. The work and ideas Williamson will presented at this symposium are inspired by the tension between fugitivity and stasis. Her work looks to surface Hemings’ underground journey, retrace her steps, and in so doing seek a definition of ‘space’ in terms of her own making.



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