Roof construction by students at Tuskegee Institute, c. 1902. Photograph by Frances Benjamin Johnston.

thinking through archives


Silences enter the process of historical production at four crucial moments: the moment of fact creation (the making of sources); the moment of fact assembly (the making of archives); the moment of fact retrieval (the making of narratives); and the moment of retrospective significance (the making of history in the final instance).
-- Michel-Rolph Trouillot

May 1, 2024
by Jay Cephas
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In 1883, the Opelika Times newspaper published a series of essays charting the history of the town of Opelika, Alabama, its surrounding agricultural hinterlands, and its most esteemed residents. Rev. F. L. Cherry, “The History of Opelika and Her Agricultural Tributary Territory, Embracing Here Particularly Lee and Russell Counties, from the Earliest Settlement to the Present Date,” The Opelika Times (October 19, 1883), 6. Written by the Reverend Francis L. Cherry, the series installment published on October 19th devoted an entire chapter to Horace King (1807-1885), an enslaved Black man who had become regionally renown as a skilled bridge builder. King had been born on a South Carolina plantation in 1807 and sometime before 1930 had built his first bridge crossing the Pee Dee River. In 1832, John Godwin, an experienced builder and contractor, had purchased King and his mother, and moved them to a settlement southeast of Opelika abutting the Chattahoochee River separating Alabama from Georgia. There, Godwin had helped establish the town of Girard, Alabama by building the first houses for white settlers. Soon Godwin had begun procuring building contracts for houses in nearby Columbus, Georgia and for bridges in the area to which he assigned King to manage all aspects of design and construction. By the 1840s, King had been responsible for building the only bridges spanning the Chattahoochee River at Columbus. Cherry also credited King for constructing every nineteenth-century crossing of the Chattahoochee River, in addition to numerous bridges King built elsewhere in the South. Rev. F. L. Cherry, “The History of Opelika and Her Agricultural Tributary Territory, Embracing Here Particularly Lee and Russell Counties, from the Earliest Settlement to the Present Date,” The Opelika Times (October 19, 1883), 6. That a Black man achieved regional notoriety as a bridge builder and engineer while still enslaved was an extraordinary feat. King continued his building practice after manumission in 1848 and established a career as an architect, bridge builder, engineer, contractor, and construction project manager, in addition to serving in the Alabama State House of Representatives from 1868 to 1872.

Cherry’s account of the famed bridge builder helped to archive King’s story, which we almost certainly would not have known about otherwise, while also highlighting the foundational importance of building knowledge and construction skills in a slave society. While Cherry’s account of King in The Opelika Times was nothing short of celebratory, his celebration of King hinged on framing King and his bridge-building skills as valuable property. Cherry bragged that King’s financial value as a bridge builder was so high that Godwin had refused to sell King, keeping the man in his possession despite mounting debt that could have been easily relieved by selling this bridge-building asset. Rev. F. L. Cherry, “The History of Opelika and Her Agricultural Tributary Territory, Embracing Here Particularly Lee and Russell Counties, from the Earliest Settlement to the Present Date,” The Opelika Times (October 19, 1883), 6. Cherry’s conflation of King’s personal worth as a human being with King’s monetary value as a capital asset in a slave-holding society both typified the times while also revealing one of the base contradictions underwriting slavery—the work done by slaves was socially necessary work and thus had high social value; at the same time, the enslaved laborer possessed no social value, having been granted no rights as a human being, denied personhood, and thus existing only as a laborer in service to a master. In his definitive study of slavery, Orlando Patterson argued that such prohibition from full participation in everyday life rendered the slave as a nonbeing, a condition Patterson termed a “social death.” Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018 [1982]).

The conflation of the high social value attributed to building skills with the low social value conveyed to slaves meant that enslaved Black builders could not be socially recognized for their skills (that is, they could not be granted personal social value) without threatening the tenuous balance that kept the slave system intact. Elsewhere I’ve written about a condition of racial capitalism whereby the economic value of Black labor is quite high (precisely because it does not require just compensation in wages but instead allows for that value to be extracted almost entirely) and this high economic value in turn depends on the sustained suppression of the social value of Black personhood. In other words, the more that Black personhood is socially devalued, the greater the economic value of Black labor precisely because that labor need not be justly compensated. See Jay Cephas, “Racial Capitalism and the Social Violence of Extraction in Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s Race for Profit,” Avery Review 56 (April 2022), http://averyreview.com/issues/56/racial-capitalism. Any challenge to the slave system that might have been imposed by publicly recognizing King as a skilled bridge builder—both while he was still enslaved and following his manumission—was subverted by treating King as an exception to the otherwise fixed rule that positioned slaves as nonbeings. Indeed, Cherry insisted on King’s exceptionality—emphasizing especially King’s docility by way of the bridge builder’s insistence on remaining within “his legitimate sphere” and King’s possession of an “honor and integrity seldom recognized in one of his class.” Rev. F. L. Cherry, “The History of Opelika and Her Agricultural Tributary Territory, Embracing Here Particularly Lee and Russell Counties, from the Earliest Settlement to the Present Date,” The Opelika Times (October 19, 1883), 6. King was not like the others, Cherry insisted, and this exceptionality allowed Cherry as King’s biographer and Godwin as King’s slave master to elevate King to the status of a full (or nearly full) human being.

However, despite Cherry’s insistence otherwise, King was in fact not alone in his class. Others writing about King a century later have noted that he was but one of potentially “hundreds of skilled black builders [coming out of South Carolina alone] who names were never recorded for history.” John S. Lupold and Thomas L. French, Jr., Bridging Deep South Rivers: The Life and Legend of Horace King (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2004), 14. Furthermore, they suggest that Godwin’s purchase of King might have kept King from “[the] life of anonymity [that plagued the vast majority of] skilled slave[s] [living] on a Carolina plantation or as a skilled carpenter in Charleston.” John S. Lupold and Thomas L. French, Jr., Bridging Deep South Rivers: The Life and Legend of Horace King (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2004), 9.

That a proliferation of skilled Black builders labored on South Carolina plantations and on urban building sites in Charleston suggests that while King may have been extraordinary in his talents, ambitions, and accomplishments, he may not have been entirely alone in his pursuits. In fact, building skills were a sought after and highly valued skill among slaves and were far more plentiful than history has since suggested. Historian Gregory S. Peniston has claimed that “the slave building-artisan grew to be about half of the total Black skilled labor of the South, which in turn was about 12 percent of the total slave population.” Peniston also notes that numerous Black historians, from W. E. B. Du Bois onward, have made similar observations regarding the proliferation of enslaved Black artisans. Gregory S. Peniston, “The Slave Builder-Artisan,” The Western Journal of Black Studies 2, no. 4 (Winter 1978): 291. Like King, others who were born into slavery also parlayed their building skills into formalized building practices following their emancipation. John Merrick (1859-1919) merged his combined skills in brick masonry and barbering into a business of building and owning Black barbershops in North Carolina. In the years following emancipation, Columbus Bob White (1857-1918) founded a contracting company in Laurens, South Carolina and proceeded to build a home for himself in addition to building other houses and two churches along Laurens’ Main Street. Others like Richard Lewis Brown (1854-1948) and Joseph Haygood Blodgett (1858-1934) parlayed their building knowledge into successful real estate development and construction businesses. However, the vast majority of Black men and women who labored as builders on plantations and on urban sites in the nineteenth century were never known beyond their immediate time and setting. In this way, the most remarkable aspect of Horace King’s story might be that his talents were publicly acknowledged at all and that an historical record of them exists.

Fig. 1. A page from the 1793 Butler Plantation ledger listing enslaved workers. Source: “A List of Negroes Taken at Hampton, May the 4th, 1793,” List of Slaves 1779-93, Collection 1447, Box 10, Folder 11, Butler Plantation Papers, Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Accessed from the Slavery, Abolition, and Social Justice Collection, https://www.slavery.amdigital.co.uk/Documents/Detail/lists-of-slaves-1779-93/978646.

Building skills were highly valued by slaveowners, a fact documented in an accounting of enslaved labor at the Butler Island rice plantations in Georgia, which were owned by Pierce Butler, a Revolutionary War hero and signatory of the United States Constitution who also became one of the largest slaveowners in the country. An accounting register dated May 7, 1793, listed the total number of slaves working within the numerous smaller plantations collectively recognized as the Butler Island Plantation (Fig. 1). “A List of Negroes Taken at Hampton, May the 4th, 1793,” List of Slaves 1779-93 , Collection 1447, Box 10, Folder 11, Butler Plantation Papers, Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Accessed from the Slavery, Abolition, and Social Justice Collection, https://www.slavery.amdigital.co.uk/Documents/Detail/lists-of-slaves-1779-93/978646. Of the 433 slaves listed in the document, 198 were designated as workers while the remaining slaves were noted as being too elderly, too young, too infirm, or too “stupid” for immediate work. Of those 198 workers, most were listed as “hands,” that is, as general laborers who might be assigned to work in the fields or elsewhere. The second largest group of workers, however, were those skilled in various building trades—jobbing carpenters, general carpenters, ship carpenters, bricklayers, and sawyers. In fact, the number of building artisans listed in the document is slightly larger than the number of workers dedicated to agricultural work on the plantation, which suggests both that building skills played an important role in the life of the plantation and that skilled Black builders were numerous (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2. The total number of enslaved workers tabulated in the 1793 Butler Plantation ledger and their associated jobs. Skilled building artisans make up a large number of the enslaved workers. Illustration by Jay Cephas. Source: “A List of Negroes Taken at Hampton, May the 4th, 1793,” List of Slaves 1779-93, Collection 1447, Box 10, Folder 11, Butler Plantation Papers, Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Accessed from the Slavery, Abolition, and Social Justice Collection, https://www.slavery.amdigital.co.uk/Documents/Detail/lists-of-slaves-1779-93/978646.

An 1803 list of slaves at the Butler plantations affirms the higher monetary value associated with building skills. “A Return of Negroes Belonging to the Honorable Pierce Butler in the State of Georgia on the Fifth Day of January 1803,” List of Slaves 1797-1815, Collection 1447, Box 10, Folder 12, Butler Plantation Papers, Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Accessed from Slavery, Abolition, and Social Justice Collection, https://slavery.quartexcollections.com/Documents/Detail/lists-of-slaves-1797-1815/978662. The 1803 register first lists an array of general laborers, including agricultural field workers, before separately listing ditchers, workers who manually dug the irrigation trenches coursing through the rice fields, and “mechanicks,” which were the plantations’ skilled artisans such as blacksmiths, rough carpenters, machine carpenters, ship carpenters, shoemakers, bricklayers, sawyers, and painters. Out of the 540 total slaves listed in the 1803 register, 234 3/4 were designated as workers, of which 29 were “mechanicks” and 12 were ditchers Workers age 55 and over and workers age 16 and younger were designated as one-half of one worker. Each worker was further attributed a monetary valuation in the register, with the “mechanicks” receiving a much higher valuation—often twice as much or more—than the general laborers and field hands in addition to being specifically noted as “valuable” (Fig. 3). The varying values associated with the differing forms of labor make clear both the economic basis of the slave system and the importance of building knowledge in the sustenance of the plantation.

Fig. 3. A page from the 1803 Butler Plantation ledger listing enslaved workers and their monetary values. Illustration by Jay Cephas. Source: “A Return of Negroes Belonging to the Honorable Pierce Butler in the State of Georgia on the Fifth Day of January 1803,” List of Slaves 1797-1815, Collection 1447, Box 10, Folder 12, Butler Plantation Papers, Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Accessed from Slavery, Abolition, and Social Justice Collection, https://slavery.quartexcollections.com/Documents/Detail/lists-of-slaves-1797-1815/978662.

The building trades were plentiful on plantations and enslaved builders like Horace King often learned building skills from enslaved familial elders and, in turn, they passed on the skills of the trade down to their children, nieces, nephews, and young cousins and neighbors. The isolation of the plantation led Black slaves to exact almost total control over skill development and skill dissemination within the plantation itself, making it likely that plantation slaves learned building skills from other plantation slaves. Enslaved artisans working in cities were more likely to have developed their skills by being “loaned” to a white artisan for apprenticeship then, after returning to their original master, being rented out to urban building sites for work. However, white artisans eventually resisted this practice as it effectively put them out of work. See Gregory S. Peniston, “The Slave Builder-Artisan,” The Western Journal of Black Studies 2, no. 4 (Winter 1978): 284-295. King’s five children (Washington W. King, Marshall Ney King, John Thomas King (1846-1926), Annie Elizabeth King, and George King) learned the trades from their father and continued this work after his death as the King Bridge Company. However, it is unclear from whom King himself learned to build. It has often been assumed that he learned from his master John Godwin, who was a house builder. John S. Lupold and Thomas L. French, Jr.’s comprehensive biography of King painstakingly attempts to trace the origins of King’s building skills but does so solely through the men who purchased and sold King by seeking to establish which of these white slave owners was or wasn’t a builder himself. See John S. Lupold and Thomas L. French, Jr., Bridging Deep South Rivers: The Life and Legend of Horace King (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2004). However, records show that King had already built a bridge crossing the Pee Dee River in South Carolina before Godwin purchased him. Cherry asserted that King was the builder of the bridge while Lupold and French suggest that King might have been just a laborer on the bridge project. See Rev. F. L. Cherry, “The History of Opelika and Her Agricultural Tributary Territory, Embracing Here Particularly Lee and Russell Counties, from the Earliest Settlement to the Present Date,” The Opelika Times (October 19, 1883), 6; and John S. Lupold and Thomas L. French, Jr., Bridging Deep South Rivers: The Life and Legend of Horace King (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2004). In fact, Godwin may have purchased King precisely because of his bridge-building talents. While Lupold and French cast suspicion on whether King played a major role in building the bridge crossing the Pee Dee River, they do suggest that both Godwin and King might have been laborers working on the project, and Godwin might have first learned about King’s building skills there. John S. Lupold and Thomas L. French, Jr., Bridging Deep South Rivers: The Life and Legend of Horace King (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2004). Because many slaves were responsible for maintaining their own living quarters, and even building them entirely from scratch, King may have learned to build in a similar manner. Numerous sources propose that building skills developed and circulated within enslaved Black communities. John Michael Vlach’s close study of living quarters built by free Blacks in New Orleans suggests that the building skills deployed there could be traced directly to west African architecture. In his study of slave buildings in Jamaica, Louis P. Nelson writes that the skills of Black building artisans was apparent enough that “one visitor to Jamaica reported in 1832 that ‘the wealth among the Negro was chiefly among the tradesmen; in going through a Negro village I could always tell a tradesman’s house from its external appearance.’” With these building skills in mind, Nelson further argues that Black building skills were born of creative responses to existing conditions. See Louis P. Nelson, “The Architectures of Black Identity: Buildings, Slavery and Freedom in the Caribbean and the American South,” Winterthur Portfolio 45, no. 2/3 (Summer/Autumn 2011): 177-194; and John Michael Vlach, “The Shotgun House: An African Architectural Legacy,” in Common Places: Readings in American Vernacular Architecture, edited by Dell Upton and John Michael Vlach (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1986). The large number of enslaved carpenters living and working in South Carolina in particular also makes it possible that King learned to build from other enslaved builders.

Those who were born free before emancipation readily called themselves “architects,” “builders,” and “contractors,” as they established their building practices in a time before the legal standards of professionalization would determine who could or could not use these terms to describe their work. In 1889, the American Institute of Architects, which had formed in 1857 to consolidate what had been an otherwise highly varied profession, moved to mandate state licensure and legalize the term “architect” while instituting an array of standards that would further define the field and limit who could practice. See Convention Proceedings of the American Institute of Architects, the Western Association of Architects, and Consolidation of the American Institute and the Western Association, Held at the Burnet House, Cincinnati, Ohio, November 20 and 21, 1889, edited by John W. Root (Chicago: Inland Architect Press, 1890). Like their enslaved counterparts, these free Black builders learned building practices from their familial elders but their free status also allowed them to learn through apprenticeships and formal education. Henry Beard Delaney (1858-1928) learned bricklaying from his father and, after studying theology, had a career as a religious leader while simultaneously supervising the design and construction of churches. William Augustus Hazel (1854-1929) learned carpentry from his father and after apprenticing as a draftsman and working as a salesman for Tiffany & Company, he built a career designing stained glass and working as an architect and educator. Richard Mason Hancock (1832-1899) similarly learned carpentry from his father and, after apprenticing to a builder, had a career as a carpenter, ship builder, and patternmaker. Patternmaker was the title held by an artisan responsible for crafting the wooden models that would be used to create forms for casting tools, machines, and other artifacts in metal. Daniel J. Farrar Sr. (1862-1923) apprenticed in his father’s carpentry shop and, along with his father, brother, and brother-in-law, built numerous buildings throughout Richmond, Virginia. Following an apprenticeship in a Philadelphia lithography shop, Grafton Tyler Brown (1841-1918) embarked on a career as a mapmaker and draftsman. Similarly, after completing an apprenticeship under Washington, D.C.’s Inspector of Buildings, Calvin Thomas Stowe Brent (1854-1899) designed and built dozens of buildings in the city, primarily churches and rowhouses. Francis Jefferson Roberson (1862-1944) took advantage of formal higher education by studying art and architecture at Karlsruhe University, which he parlayed into a career working as a draftsman, architect, and art teacher.

In the days immediately following emancipation, former slaves relied upon building knowledge to literally construct the new communities that would sustain them and their families in the postbellum world. These newly freed builders often worked with meager means in terms of materials and tools yet turned to a resourcefulness born of the fact of their prior enslavement. In the monthly journal published by the American Freedman’s Union Commission, a report from a South Carolina teacher described the grounds of the makeshift Baptist Sunday school there as but “a few benches placed in the sand, and here and there a bit of ragged bunting spread for the teachers to stand upon,” further noting that “the roof seems to have been thrown down upon a piece of old wall…and three small windows have been inserted.” E. E. King, “South-Carolina,” The American Freedman 2, no. 12 (March 1868): 383. However, the teacher did not position the simplicity of the structure in a negative light but instead saw it as illustrative of an eagerness to begin building the spaces necessary for education and the community’s ability to source building materials from whatever was at hand.

The same teacher made note of the role of women in these building practices when she mentioned one woman who had “gathered a few old boards and built herself a loose hovel in the churchyard” and further “made herself a rude fire-place of bricks brought from some ruins,” and another woman “who had gathered together material for a house with her own hands, and with the assistance of her husband built a house, filling the interstices with clay….” E. E. King, “South-Carolina,” The American Freedman 2, no. 12 (March 1868): 383. That the teacher positioned the husband as assisting the woman builder, rather than the other way around, speaks to the critical role played by Black women in the physical building of communities. Indeed, the teacher later stated that “the mother of the woman builder lives with her.” E. E. King, “South-Carolina,” The American Freedman 2, no. 12 (March 1868): 383. By referring to this artisan as “the woman builder,” the teacher affirmed the primary role of this Black woman in this construction project. Along with the lack of any other further note about the situation, the teacher’s report also suggests that the presence of a Black woman builder was not an out-of-the-ordinary event and that Black women commonly participated in local building practices.

The ability to source and work with materials, to manage and direct labor, and to design according to structural and aesthetic concerns were all necessary skills for building physical communities, whether those communities consisted of the living quarters of the enslaved or the burgeoning neighborhoods of the free. Building practices were incredibly important for free Black people—so much so that in 1832, Charles H. Leveck, a leader of the nineteenth-century “colored conventions” movement, called for architects to aid Black Americans in building a new free settlement in Canada. Charles H. Leveck, To the People of Colour, and Friends of the Canada Settlement (Philadelphia: 1832). The familial transfer of building knowledge, as Black builders passed their skills down from one generation to the next, helped keep these necessary building practices intact while also aiding in expanding and circulating building knowledge. What began as a familial knowledge transfer ultimately helped establish important nodes in what would become networks of professional knowledge. Thus a through line can be traced from enslaved builders (usually carpenters and masons) to the free Black draftsmen, architects, landscape architects, engineers, and contractors who established businesses following the abolition of slavery. The building skills, knowledge, and practices that had been essential for the enslaved and free Black people living and working before emancipation, remained just as essential in a post-emancipation “free” world that would continue to deny Black people full social rights. This meant that post-emancipation Black people had to rely on their building knowledge and their own labor to create community among themselves. Obtaining housing meant building their own houses, worshiping freely meant building their own churches, and learning to read and write meant building their own schools.

Kinship networks of building practices laid the groundwork for those born after the end of slavery to enter into nascent professional networks of Black built environment practitioners. Like their forebears, many of those born during Reconstruction initially learned the trades from family members. But additionally, this first generation of free Black Americans increasingly benefitted from formal education offered by the Black normal schools and industrial institutes that would become the first historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). They also benefitted from the expanding networks of Black families, businesses, and institutions that increasingly sought out skilled building practitioners. John Henry Michael (1867-1940) learned carpentry from his father, received an architectural degree from Hampton Institute, and taught at Tuskegee Institute, all before establishing a career as an educator teaching mechanical drawing and woodworking, before going on to establish Black public schools in Asheville, South Carolina. After learning carpentry from relatives, Lawrence Reese (1865-1915) began building caskets and selling them to Black undertakers (during a time when Black people had to establish their own undertaking businesses because white funeral homes refused to accept Black bodies) while also building houses throughout Darlington, South Carolina. Elizabeth Carter Brooks (1867-1951) received formal architectural training at Swain Free School in New Bedford, Massachusetts, which she used to support advocacy for Black women, while also teaching, designing buildings, and supervising construction. Following his graduation from Cornell University’s College of Agriculture, David Augustus Williston (1868-1962) established an influential landscape architecture practice that designed the grounds of numerous Black colleges and universities. Similarly, Louis Harvey Banks (1868-1935) and his brother Chastine Banks designed gardens and landscaped the grounds for mansions in the wealthy suburbs of Toledo, Ohio. Frederick Blackburn Pelham (1864-1895) designed eighteen bridges for the Michigan Central Railroad after graduating from the University of Michigan’s School of Engineering. After earning a bachelor of science degree in architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Robert Robinson Taylor (1868-1942) joined the faculty at Tuskegee Institute, overseeing the Mechanical Industries Department and serving as campus architect, positions in which he became one of the most influential figures in the formal education of Black architects and builders. These late-nineteenth century Black builders helped establish and broaden the social and professional networks that would support twentieth-century built environment practitioners, whose networks would tend to aggregate around both HBCUs (especially Howard University and Tuskegee University) and cities with well-established networks of Black builders (such as Washington, DC, Rochester, NY, and Los Angeles, CA).

By the mid-twentieth century, Black built environment professionals had designed and built thousands of buildings, bridges, and landscapes across the United States and Canada. Many of them received little, if any, recognition for their work. This lack of attribution has given the historical impression that Black people did not contribute to shaping the built environment. Yet Black built environment practices have been crucial for establishing and sustaining communities—Black building practices literally sustained Black life and Black builders helped to design, construct, and maintain places that would benefit all people, even as those same Black builders were denied recognition for their work. A few of those builders have been named here but there were many many more.

Who were these Black builders, architects, landscape architects, and engineers whose work helped to sustain the life of communities? When, where, and how did they practice their craft? How do we find out about them? How might we today understand our cities, towns, and neighborhoods differently with knowledge about who designed and built these places?

An historical archive of Black building practices

These and other questions prompted the creation of the Black Architects Archive, an interactive digital repository that traces the impact of Black intellectual and physical labor on transforming the American built environment.The Black Architects Archive aims to reveal both the breadth and depth of Black spatial practice in the Americas by documenting the work of Black architects, builders, contractors, engineers, landscape designers, draftsmen and women, mapmakers, and other built environment practitioners working across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Black Architects Archive is an historical collection that references only the work of deceased built environment practitioners. The aim is to recover the historical impact Black Americans have had on the built environment while also making this information publicly available as a resource for local history.

To this end, the collection has been built with three objectives in mind:

1. To embrace and celebrate the extraordinary work of ordinary people.

From their initial presence in the Americas, Black people have made significant contributions to shaping the built environment. The Black Architects Archive currently includes information about built environment practitioners who collectively were responsible for nearly 3,300 buildings, landscapes, and bridges (Fig. 4). This number is as of April 2024 and includes buildings, bridges, and landscapes primarily in the United States and Canada with a few in Colombia, Brazil, France, South Korea, Japan, Senegal, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Sudan. New data is added to the collection on a weekly basis. Additionally, we have a backlog of several hundred practitioners to be entered into the collection, which means that the building count will likely grow into the tens of thousands. If there is a person or place you think should be included that isn’t already listed, please let us know.

Fig. 4. The Black Architects Archive includes (so far) 3,289 buildings, landscapes, and bridges built by Black people. Source: "Buildings," Black Architects Archive, accessed April 23, 2024, https://archive.blackarchitectsarchive.org/buildings/.

However, the aim here is not to canonize these individuals by treating them as exceptions to a norm. Just as Horace King was but one among many, the buildings and practitioners documented in the Black Architects Archive are similarly illustrative of a greater number of individuals and spaces that otherwise have been lost to history. The kind of exceptionalizing that Cherry applied to Horace King has historically functioned as a way to position Black talent as rare rather than plentiful. In contrast, the Black Architects Archive frames these Black built environment practitioners as part of growing knowledge networks that included people of varying skill levels and degrees of productivity, and whose laboring to shape the built environment impacted the world in a multitude of ways.

The aim then is to challenge those canonical approaches to history that would selectively elevate some individuals over others and by doing so minimize the broad impact of Black building practices. Canons of knowledge tend to overly simplify the complexity of an otherwise diverse and multi-faceted society by reducing focus to the works of a chosen few. For this reason, historical canons can often tell us far more about the people creating, maintaining, and referencing the canon than about the works the canon aims to elevate. While certainly some people may have had a greater social impact than others, focusing solely on the impact of a few often discounts the role of knowledge networks and other social conditions that made those few genius impacts possible. In contrast, an expansive approach to history can help reveal this multiplicity inherent to human societies. For this reason, the Black Architects Archive takes an expansive approach that positions the common and everyday alongside the atypical and extraordinary. This approach includes positioning design practices alongside building practices, academic education alongside trade apprenticeships, and scholarly academic knowledge alongside tacit kinship-based knowing, which means recognizing that most of these practitioners crossed the porous boundaries between these categories. In other words, setting aside canonization and its ways of reading the past can actually help us get closer to and more finely understand the conditions under study.

An expansive approach to history means working beyond tabulating “firsts.” The language of “firsts” is pervasive in histories of Black impact, and often for good reason as marking the first Black architect, the first Black landscape architect, or the first Black engineer has served as a way to pinpoint precise moments in cultural shifts while also heralding the huge barriers overcome by these individuals. However, focusing solely on “firsts” risks reinforcing one of the more insidious and persistent historical justifications for racial discrimination, namely that Black talent is rare and thus exceptional. To cite just one example, on December 18, 1867, Representative James Brooks of New York delivered a speech to the U.S. House of Representatives arguing against the third Reconstruction Bill that had been proposed (and passed) earlier that year. Central to Brooks’ argument was his claim that no renowned cultural figures—no poets, artists, architects, or inventors—had emerged from African or African-descended cultures, which he in turn used as evidence of racial inferiority. Of course, Brooks did not acknowledge that enslaved Africans in the U.S. were both prohibited from producing cultural artifacts and, in the cases where they did, were not given credit for their cultural contributions. See James Brooks, “Reconstruction: Speech of Hon. James Brooks of New York in the House of Representatives, December 18, 1867,” (Washington, DC: Congressional Globe Office, 1867). Too much historical writing has absorbed and (often unknowingly) reproduced this racialist claim. While histories of “firsts” often intend to celebrate Black entry into cultural production, in so doing they often ignore that Black people had been culturally producing all along. Histories focused on “firsts” thus tend to not fully acknowledge the many many people who tried and didn’t become “firsts,” not because they lacked the requisite skills, persistence, courage, or knowledge, but because the structures of exclusion (that is, the systems of rules, laws, and conventions upholding a racialist society) actively prohibited them from full social participation and thus denied them recognition for their social contributions. Many of those deemed the first were not the first to attempt but among the last to be resisted in totality.

Such structural exclusion rests on selective inclusion. In other words, the system that excluded Black people from being recognized for their social contributions reinforced that exclusion by selectively folding in a chosen few (like Horace King) who were anointed with “exceptional” status. While the elevated place of King and others was certainly deserved due to their talents, the admittance to that position was premised on the idea that they achieved something intellectually, personally, or professionally that their forebears did not, and thus emphasizes the idea that Black talent is rare—much rarer than non-Black talent. In contrast, often what these people were the first to achieve was recognition for their talents. Historical narratives that focus on the outsized talent as a rarity in this way put the onus (both historically and contemporarily) on the exceptionally-talented individual to overcome the seemingly impossible, which in turn shifts attention away from the social forces that allowed such discriminatory practices in the first place. This social and historical separation of the exceptional from the ordinary reinforces minoritization, which itself validates discrimination by claiming that: 1) such discrimination occurs only because the discriminated group already exists at the social margins and 2) any group existing at the social margins plays only a minimal role in sustaining society (and thus is a social, if not demographic, minority). Minoritization stands in contrast to the historical truth that groups are typically pushed to the social margins precisely because they are discriminated against even when they play significant roles in sustaining society. Minorization relies on an underlying and often errant assumption that marginalized groups are also demographic minorities. It thus further relies on the presumption that demographic minorities (in a democratic society) are legally and morally subject to the democratically-reached consensus of the majority. Thus a group can be minoritized even if or when they constitute a demographic majority. Framing the position and plight of marginalized groups within the language of “minorities” in the U.S. helps to reinforce the perception of these groups as constituting a non-majority sector of society, even when they don’t. Minoritization positions discriminated groups as those who always already exist at the social edge, and selective inclusion proposes to retrieve a chosen few from those margins and offer them a provisional seat at the center.

Rather than focusing on a selective few, the Black Architects Archive attempts to document the many and thus turns to the plenitude as a means of tracing the extents of Black building practices. A core interest here is how widely spread and extensive Black building practices were and continued to be. This approach is inspired by Daphne Brooks, who asks “How do we capture the everyday? And how do we do that without exceptionalizing Black people? How do we normalize Black life?” Daphne Brooks posed this question at the 2022 annual conference of the African American Intellectual History Society which had the theme “Everyday Practices, Memory Making, and Local Spaces.” Positioning the extraordinary alongside the ordinary offers one way of normalizing the range and extents of Black building knowledge and practices.

2. To offer an expanded model for conducting and disseminating research.

Historical archives have long served as the traditional source for original research; however, when turning to understudied topics, such as the historical impact of Black spatial practices, this conventional approach to producing new historical knowledge reveals its limits. Archives have traditionally been closed and protected domains. As official repositories of information (usually physical rooms ensconced deep within the libraries of universities and other large institutions), many archives are open only to professional scholars and those with the “financial, intellectual, [and] social” means to access them, with such access further predicated upon possessing a range of abilities such as applying for and winning grants, traveling to sometimes far-flung locations, learning new languages if necessary, and knowing how to search for and retrieve information. Dianne Harris, “Architectural History’s Futures,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 74, no. 2 (June 2015): 149. These restrictions mean that information preserved in archival collections are rarely truly publicly accessible, even though they may claim and aim to be. Additionally, conventional archives often don’t contain information about marginalized people as many archival collections consist of materials donated by wealthy individuals, large institutions, and state-based agencies, all of which tend to document history from those perspectives. Conventional archives reveal little about enslaved builders, for example, compared to non-enslaved builders, and when enslaved builders do appear in archives, they frequently appear not as people but as assets listed in financial registers. Because racial discrimination prohibited many free Black builders from being formally recognized for their work, they too are often absent from conventional historical archives.

Normalizing Black building knowledge and spatial practices thus cannot proceed without a means for surfacing original historical information about these Black builders. Inspired by Tiffany Flovil who insists that “researching the Black quotidian means creating your own archive,” the Black Architects Archive is an archive of archives, one that orders a body of remote research materials that together trace the extraordinary output of the Black ordinary. Tiffany Flovil made this comment during a roundtable discussion at the 2022 annual conference of the African American Intellectual History Society which had the theme "Everyday Practices, Memory Making, and Local Spaces." The Black Architects Archive aims to surface the broadest range of material possible and offer routes to that material so that others (and we) can do deep dives to explore the depths of Black built environment practices. Technically, the Black Architects Archive is an index of collections as we are not currently collecting the materials themselves but are rather building a directory that surfaces the names of Black built environment practitioners, the places they shaped, and the locations of primary source materials on these people and places.

As a digital indexing of Black built environment information, the Black Architects Archive helps to reconfigure remote and potentially inaccessible archives by curating an accessible body of information from which we (and you) can draw deeper insights. Key to curating this archive of archives is engaging with the curatorial process as an argument in itself. Here, the argument is simple yet necessary to state—Black people had a profound impact on shaping the American built environment. More than just envisioning the archive as the source of research material, this approach offers the opportunity to “embrace archives in their entirety and employ them as a site of inquiry.” Catherine Moriarty, “Monographs, Archives, and Networks: Representing Designer Relationships,” Design Issues 32, no. 4 (Autumn 2016): 55. In this way, the archive itself, as well as the process of continuously building the archive, is as much the subject of research as the Black builders and architects that the archive surfaces.

This dynamism inherent to digital collections means that the Black Architects Archive does not present a fixed set of information but is instead a continuously updated collection whose content, form, and structure remain open to expansion and interpretation, which in turn allows for the possibility of an “infinite archive.” The Black Architects Archive is updated weekly. For more on the concept of the “infinite archive,” see Catherine Moriarty, “Monographs, Archives, and Networks: Representing Designer Relationships,” Design Issues 32, no. 4 (Autumn 2016): 52-63. Rather than envisioning research as a method for attaining definitive answers to historically complex questions, the infinite archive presents complex analyses that are never quite complete. Such analyses are presented to audiences not as answers but as opportunities for engagement and expansion. Rather than attempting to arrest the archive’s data in time for perpetuity, the Black Architects Archive is conceived as a dynamic and open work. For more on the concept of the open work, see Umberto Eco, The Open Work (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989).

Archiving Black spatial practices is then a dynamic process of collecting, organizing, and presenting information. It is at once a process for structuring research, an output of that research, and a framework for thinking through the subjects at the center of the research. Archiving is a research method then that reflects an ethos rooted in the preservation of Black built environment histories and the commemoration of Black physical and intellectual labor. This archiving-as-method began with the initial surfacing of the material, for which Dreck Spurlock Wilson’s comprehensive collection of Black builders in African American Architects: A Biographical Dictionary 1865-1945 has been the single most important secondary source for the initial creation of the archive. See Dreck Spurlock Wilson, ed., African American Architects: A Biographical Dictionary, 1865-1945 (New York: Routledge, 2004). In the twenty years since the book’s publication, however, some of the material has become outdated; so the Black Architects Archive reflects a comprehensive update of that information, namely from accessing historical census records to verify and correct the birth and death dates, occupations, homesteads, places of practice, and familial relationships of the Black built environment practitioners listed within. Local building records were consulted as well to verify dates of construction and demolition for all buildings listed. In addition to updating the information listed in Wilson’s book, this research resulted in surfacing other practitioners and buildings who hadn’t previously been noted. For this work, HBCU libraries and special collections have been key primary sources for providing information about practitioners, usually Black architects, landscape architects, and builders educated or teaching at HBCUs in the early twentieth century and later. Other important sources include regional online collections of Black builders, Black Past, NC Modernist, and Pacific Coast Architecture Database are a few of the more robust online collections that include Black builders. local building records, Although all municipalities must keep a record of built structures and many municipalities retain historical records of buildings, few cities and towns make this material available online or easily retrievable in person. This variation in availability causes a significant imbalance in this data in the Black Architects Archive. A good example of this is Plainfield, a relatively small city in New Jersey that also happens to have a comprehensive database of historical building permits with scanned blueprints, all available and searchable online. This means that we have precise citations for buildings in Plainfield, but are missing citations for more well-known buildings elsewhere and for buildings in much larger cities. See the Charles Detwiller Collection of Blueprints and Line Drawings, Plainfield Public Library, https://plainfieldlibrarynj.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/p17109coll2. archives of churches and private organizations, collections held by local public libraries, Public libraries frequently hold materials not held elsewhere. They are easily the most valuable and simultaneously undervalued resource for local built environment history. historical census data, historical newspaper collections, personal papers of individuals such as letters and diaries, and the private collections of lay historians that include unpublished papers. This archiving research has drawn from a variety of sources, all of which are cited directly on each archive page with links provided to online sources whenever possible.

The work of surfacing information about Black built environments also relies on collaborative, crowd-sourced, and community-driven approaches to research.This often means sourcing information directly from the people closest to these historical subjects—their descendants, and their former business partners, co-workers, and students—and from others with direct knowledge of these practitioners and the places they built. It also means directly soliciting and welcoming information from anyone knowledgeable about Black built environment practices. Collecting information this way comes with risks, however, as it requires that the information is verified to be true. Thus data verification to mitigate the risks associated with such crowd-sourced and community-driven contributions is an important part of this work.Verification details include, at minimum, establishing the name of the built environment practitioner, the place or location of practice, any building projects they may have been involved in, and their role in those projects. Verification of buildings and other structures include determining location (such as address or coordinates), whether the building is still standing, relevant dates of construction and demolition, and uses of the building over time.This verification process comprises the bulk of the continuous work undertaken by researchers working on the Black Architects Archive, all of whom are trained in historical research and analysis. Data verification is meant to assure the veracity of the data, not to judge or qualify the work itself. In this way, inclusion in the Black Architects Archive is not based on notoriety, awards, or aesthetic critique, nor is it based on formal education or licensure. Such measures have often served as a layer of exclusionary practice. Instead, surfacing the existence of Black built environment practitioners means including any person who can be verified to have have engaged in this practice as an occupation.

The Black Architects Archive accounts for an array of built environment practitioners and so includes the work of people who called themselves builders, architects, contractors, landscape architects, surveyors, and carpenters, as well as others who shaped the built environment in a professional capacity—that is, as a livelihood—, regardless of whether they were paid for their labor or publicly recognized for their work. Efforts to both restrict self-building and to exclude Black builders from lucrative building projects often relied on segmenting building practices by distinguishing between mental and manual labor, attributing greater value to mental labor, and subsequently defining Black labor solely through physical work. I’m grateful to a recent conversation with John N. Robinson who made the excellent point that Black self-building likely challenged efforts to professionalize architectural work. Elsewhere, I’ve written about the historical association of Black bodies with physical labor. Jay Cephas,“Picturing Modernity: Race, Labor, and Landscape Production in the Old South,” in Landscript 5, edited by Jane Hutton (Berlin: Jovis Verlag, 2017). An expansive approach to the history of built environment practice thus requires extending beyond the exclusionary terms set by those who had historically sought to restrict Black building practices. This means including forms of practice that may not have been recognized or accepted by professional organizations. It also means paying attention to what these Black built environment practitioners called themselves and how their peers referred to them—and in turn using this self-naming as a guide for inclusion. For this reason, the Black Architects Archive includes employees of built environment practices, and not just principals, founders, or owners of firms, who in some cases—like with Julian Francis Abele (1881-1950) in the office of Horace Trumbauer, George Washington Foster Jr. (1866-1923) in the office of Daniel Burnham, and Georgia Louise Harris Brown (1918-1999) in the office of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe—received little or no public attribution for the work they were doing at these high profile practices.

3. To visualize the extents and impacts of Black spatial practices.

After surfacing information, engaging in archiving as a research process means ordering that information by giving data structure and then presenting the structured information to others for use. The Black Architects Archive organizes information around four pillars of data: 1) basic biographical information about individual people which includes their names, dates of birth and death, gender, and places of practice; 2) information about the places (such as buildings, landscapes, and bridges) that they designed or built; 3) information about the professional practices they established or worked at; and 4) information about the educational institutions they attended (Fig. 5). At minimum, each entry in the Black Architects Archive must include the name of a person, place, practice, or school, respectively.

Fig. 5. The Black Architects Archive consists of four interlinked categories of data: people, places, practices, and pedagogy. Some data included here (namely practices and pedagogy) is included in the Archive but has not yet been published. Illustration by Jay Cephas. Source: Data from Black Architects Archive, accessed April 23, 2024, https://archive.blackarchitectsarchive.org/.

These four categories—people, places, practices, and pedagogy—reflect the primary pools of information that surfaced in our initial research about Black building practices, and thus they reflect the bulk of information that is available about Black building practices. The ‘people’ category includes any person who can be verified to have worked as a built environment practitioner. ‘Practices’ include a variety of businesses, organizations, and agencies that employed Black built environment practitioners or were established or run by them. ‘Places’ includes the vast array of built environments, primarily buildings, landscapes, and bridges, designed and constructed by Black built environment practitioners. ‘Pedagogy’ includes a range of educational environments, including high schools, normal schools, trade schools, and correspondence schools in addition to colleges and universities, where these Black built environment practitioners learned their skills and taught their skills to others. This information is compiled in a non-relational database that allows for many-to-many connections to be inferred from the data. The complete dataset is stored and served from a MongoDB database. Further details of the tech stack are as follows: Data are visualized with D3. Interactive maps are published with Mapbox and with geometry served from a self-hosted instance of Tileserver. Geospatial analysis (still under development) is conducted with Turf.js. Queries into the maps and database are written in Javascript and PHP, respectively. Text analysis scripts are written in Python. Search is provided by Algolia. Census tables and spatial data files are retrieved from NHGIS. All other data are sourced as previously noted. Static maps are drawn in QGIS. Static illustrations and diagrams, and animated gifs, are drawn in Keynote and Illustrator. Designs for the website, application, data visualizations, and maps are developed through a combination of hand drawings and Figma. This structure means that the collection is not limited to attributing only one person to one place, or only one practice to one person, but can, for example, attribute many places to many different practitioners. This particular structuring of the archive can then push back against the minimizing tendency to attribute building design, for example, to only a singular author.

Once information has been surfaced and ordered, then it must be presented. Thus, the third part of the archiving process has been concerned with figuring out how to present that ordering—those many-to-many relationships between people, places, practices, and pedagogy—so that it is surfaced in a legible and readily accessible manner.

W. E. B. Du Bois’ approach to data visualization has served as a key inspiration for thinking through how and why data about Black spatial practices might be visualized. In 2019, I had the honor of being appointed a W. E. B. Du Bois Research Fellow at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, whose library retains the primary archive of W. E. B. Du Bois’ work. The previous year, Whitney Battle-Baptiste, the director of the research center overseeing the Du Bois archive, had published the archive’s collection of Du Bois’ data visualizations. In February 2020, to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the Du Bois Center, Battle-Baptiste brought the Du Bois fellows together to discuss, among other things, how new and entirely different projects might be inspired by Du Bois’ legacy. The Black Architects Archive, which had been simmering as an idea for several years at that point and had existed primarily as a series of public talks on the role of digital humanities in preserving African-American heritage, grew directly out of those conversations. See Whitney Battle-Baptiste and Britt Rusert, eds., W. E. B. Du Bois’s Data Portraits Visualizing Black America: The Color Line at the Turn of the Twentieth Century (Hudson, NY: Princeton Architectural Press, 2018). As a foundational urban sociologist, Du Bois dedicated the first part of his career to the sociological study of Black life in the United States as a means to push back against the academic erasure of the Black experience. As a counter to earlier academic studies that pathologized Blackness through pseudo-scientific and often invasive studies of Black bodies, Du Bois sought to humanize, categorize, and most importantly, understand Black social space through the study of Black communities. In this, he resisted the notion that Black personhood was a problem by instead problematizing cities and urban living at the turn of the twentieth century. See W. E. B. Du Bois, The Philadelphia Negro (New York: Cosimo Classics, 2007[1899]).

Visual documentation and analysis served as the primary mode through which Du Bois exacted his arguments countering the racialization of Black people (Fig. 6).

Fig. 6. Source: W. E. B. Du Bois, “City and Rural Population, 1890,” Ink and watercolor on board, 22 x 28 in., in The Georgia Negro: A Social Study, c. 1900. Photograph retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2013650430/. See also Whitney Battle-Baptiste and Britt Rusert, eds., W. E. B. Du Bois’s Data Portraits Visualizing Black America: The Color Line at the Turn of the Twentieth Century (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2018).

He used richly colored maps and diagrams to convey a full and comprehensive picture of Black life, which meant quantifying this spatial information for precise in-depth analyses while also drawing broad qualitative conclusions (Fig. 7).

Fig. 7. Source: W. E. B. Du Bois, Philadelphia, Seventh Ward, Map. 1899. 22 x 107 cm (9 x 42 in) color print, 1899. Photograph retrieved from Publications of the University of Pennsylvania, https://jstor.org/stable/community.22101799.

Photographs supplemented this data visualization by reinforcing the humanity of the subjects (Fig. 8).

Fig. 8. Source: W. E. B. Du Bois, “Income and Expenditure of 150 Negro Families in Atlanta, GA., U.S.A.,” Ink, watercolor, and photographic prints on board, 22 x 28 in., in The Georgia Negro: A Social Study, c. 1900. Photograph retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2013650354/. See also Whitney Battle-Baptiste and Britt Rusert, eds., W. E. B. Du Bois’s Data Portraits Visualizing Black America: The Color Line at the Turn of the Twentieth Century (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2018).

And it was all presented with a keen eye for design that both clarified the meaning behind the data while giving balance, order, and form to the information presented. Each of Du Bois’ data visualizations, as well as the modes of Black life they analyzed and represented, served as evidence in form, content, and structure that Black people aimed to be, as Du Bois asserted, “coworkers in the kingdom of culture.” W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (Boston; New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1997[1903]), 39. Indeed, his visualizations served as an accounting that granted visibility to entire historical trajectories and countered otherwise racialized readings of Black history. In so doing, Du Bois recognized that writing alternate histories portends not just telling different stories in terms of historical content or postulating different outcomes in terms of historical analysis but also offering radically different presentations in terms of the form that the historical research might take.

Inspired by Du Bois’ work, the Black Architects Archive makes the histories of Black built environment practices dynamically accessible through three types of visualizations: photographs, mappings, and diagrams. Photographs play an important role in granting humanity to these historical subjects by showing their faces alongside their names and thus de-anonymizing Black intellectual and physical labor wherever possible (Fig. 9).

Fig. 9. The faces of Black built environment practitioners. Source: Black Architects Archive, accessed April 23, 2024, https://archive.blackarchitectsarchive.org/.

Mappings spatialize the extents and range of Black built environment practices (Fig. 10). I use the term “mappings” instead of “maps” to emphasize a continuum between the process of collecting, cleaning, and structuring data for maps and the design and presentation of the map itself. Thus the mapping takes into account both the process of making the artifact and the artifact itself. In this respect, I am interested in mappings as an archive of data collection, organization, and presentation. They trace the spatial intricacies of the social, familial, and professional networks that Black people established to support their livelihoods, to educate themselves and develop new skills, and to provide livable spaces for their families and communities. Clusters of building activities suggest both the strong nodes within these networks and the transcontinental communications that these nodes anchored. Mapping in particular can reveal relationships between large social phenomena, such as the Great Migration, and their effects on precise populations, like these Black builders, and the smaller subregional phenomena—such as local migrations that occurred around building practices—that affected them directly.

Fig. 10. The places of Black built environment practice. Source: Black Architects Archive, accessed April 23, 2024, https://archive.blackarchitectsarchive.org/buildings/.

Diagrams offer an opportunity to trace more precisely the details of the knowledge networks that grew from and sustained Black building practices. In tracing the historic kinship and professional networks between Black builders, the Black Architects Archive also offers a genealogy of the trade skills, engineering knowledge, and design insights handed down from ancestors (Fig. 11).

Fig. 11. A random selection of 62 practitioners show multiple familial, educational, and professional connections between them. Some data included here (namely practices and pedagogy) is included in the Archive but has not yet been published. Illustration by Jay Cephas. Source: Data from Black Architects Archive, accessed April 23, 2024, https://archive.blackarchitectsarchive.org/.

A narrative emerges over the course of Du Bois’ visualizations, which means that his maps and diagrams did not just present raw data and facts about people, but rather strove to articulate a more comprehensive and cohesive argument about Black life by putting data into context. A surprising simplicity and clarity persisted throughout many of those diagrams, while they also reflected novel approaches to displaying data. We hope the Black Architects Archive might function in a similar manner as it aims to visually reveal information previously unknown and prompt deeper dives into those areas.

Thinking through Archives

That much of the material traced in the Black Architects Archive concerns the work Black people did, paid and unpaid, to shape the built environment makes it an archive of labor—of often hidden and unacknowledged labor, some of which is being surfaced for the first time. Accounting for labor not just in the archive, but the labor of the archive—the work that goes into surfacing, ordering and presenting the material within it—plays an important role as well. Assembling the Black Architects Archive has relied heavily on paid student labor within a collaborative teaching/learning environment, which has included the work of undergraduate and graduate students majoring in architectural design, history and theory of architecture, computer science, English, graphic design, urban planning, human/computer interaction, and web design. All work on the Black Architects Archive, including work done by students, is the result of paid labor at fair and living wages. Students participated in multiple workshops on database design and interface design, engaged in pair programming to code the first iterations of the website and application, and continuously engage in deep research to add and verify new information for the collection. Archiving is then a form of work (a thing that we “do” for pay), a way of working (an approach to thinking through and about history), and a product of work (a collection of accounts).

If archiving can constitute a range of practices, then the archive itself can be understood as more than just a collection of information. The term “archive” simultaneously suggests the historical nature of the information, the place where the information is stored, and a presumption that there exists both a process for structuring the information as well as a system of classification that determines its organization. In a conventional archive, a host of librarians, accessioners, archivists, and collections managers have poured over the materials, referenced classification systems, given order to the information, made decisions about what goes where and why, and then published finding aids that let us, those outside the archiving process, know how to find the things we are looking for. Those of us accessing those conventional archives may or may not know the reasonings behind the specific ordering of the information. With this hidden structuring of conventional archives in mind, the Black Architects Archive provokes concern with making the archiving process as transparent as possible while also contending with how the archiving process might influence the forms (visual and textual) that information can take, the way information might be analyzed, how information can be stored, and how people might interact with it.

Michel-Rolph Trouillot reminds us that archiving, as a moment of fact assembly, necessarily introduces silences into the very history that it seeks to document. See Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1995). Some silences reflect the very nature of the archive, which itself can never be total or complete just like a map can never constitute its entire territory without ceasing to be a map. Archives are inherently partial collections. This inherent incompleteness of archives is further compounded by silences that have been deployed as tools of suppression used to erase people, events, and conditions from historical records, much like the Black builders discussed here had been silenced by omission. Silences also envelop historical narratives that have sought to reinforce the ideals of those doing the historical writing, as exemplified in Francis L. Cherry’s rendering of Horace King in a manner that sought to assert King’s submission to white supremacy by and through positioning King as an exception to Black personhood. Such silencing through historical narratives has served to extend racialism beyond its current moment by inscribing it into the historical record. Silences and silencing are entangled with archives and archiving. Our aim here is to be aware of the silenced, to turn attention to the mechanisms of silencing, and to grapple with the silences that emerge as an inherent outcome of curation.