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Negotiated Space: The Black College Campus as a Cultural Record of Postbellum America

From: American Quarterly
Volume 51, Number 3, September 1999
pp. 529-579 | 10.1353/aq.1999.0039

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American Quarterly 51.3 (1999) 529-579

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Introduction

In 1923, when President Harding's administration decided to locate a segregated hospital for colored veterans adjacent to Tuskegee University's campus near the town of Tuskegee, in Macon County Alabama, local whites were outraged because Tuskegee's black principal Russa Moton refused to yield to their demands that whites be placed in exclusive control of the hospital. Up to this point he, like his predecessor Booker T. Washington, was regarded as an unwavering accommodationist who appreciated the social dictates of the Jim Crow South. Now, however, probably buoyed by the wave of militancy flowing from returning black veterans of World War I, he dared to stay his ground even in the face of threats against his life. Increased security on the campus and at Moton's home did not deter a band of the town's irate citizens, who, failing to win President Harding's sympathy for their cause, sought to take matters into their own hands. They marched along Old Montgomery Road, past the piney ravines that separated town and gown, to confront the defiant Moton at his doorstep, demanding that he sign a statement endorsing white management of the hospital. "Booker T. Washington," one member asserted,

gave thirty-five years of his life to build up this school. You, unless you are too stubborn to sign a little paper here, are going to have it all blown up in twenty-four hours. We have the legislature, we make the laws, we have the judges, the sheriffs, the jails. We have the hardware stores and the arms.

In this moment, what came to a head was more than simply the conflict between town and gown in Tuskegee; it was also the conflict between the goals of black college campuses and the status quo expectations of whites who held the reigns of power. The chasm between town and gown in this violent episode indicates a different spatial relation between black campus and white community than what might be expected in the familiar phrase "town and gown." The piney ravines traversed by the angry mob may help us understand something about the spaces occupied by the races and how each race negotiated such spaces during this time. This essay will look at how the campuses of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) record through space the African American struggle for higher education and, more generally, the cultural history of race relations in the postbellum South.

HBCUs emerged between the 1860s and the 1930s in response to the desire of African Americans -- and their supporters -- to build a system of higher education to facilitate their social, economic, and political uplift. Their concerted effort to achieve this goal, however, frequently sparked threatening responses from some white Southerners. Such Southerners felt that black education undermined the agricultural economy of the region by endangering the supply of agricultural labor, which blacks still provided in the postbellum South -- a demand that resided within the larger requirement that blacks remain under the control of a white power structure. Booker T. Washington's negotiation of this conflict was expressed by his educational philosophy, which emphasized vocational training for blacks. As a landscape architecture scholar, I am interested in how such conflicts and accommodations were also expressed spatially by Tuskegee's and other HBCU campuses. How did Tuskegee's planners anticipate the possibility that the product of their labor could be "blown up" because of some perceived infraction against the delicate social, economic, and political boundaries of the time? Can we unearth from such features as the location and layout of the HBCU campus a spatial record of this conflict and of the more subtle day-to-day forms of racial subordination? Can the built environment, a mute form, serve as a primary source for history to compensate for the paucity of written records about ordinary and marginalized people or the silence that typically shrouds the memory of painful events in the African American experience?

In his 1934 essay "The Negro and His Plantation Heritage," Robert E. Park incidentally touches on the importance of geography in understanding the peculiar separation and connectedness of black and white in the Jim...


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