Exploring Place in African American History

A log cabin, a city row house, and a Baptist church. As a list of buildings, it is unremarkable. When I describe these three structures with a focus on their places in history, the list gets much more interesting. They are also: the slave quarters on the Tennessee plantation owned by Pres. Andrew Jackson, the headquarters of the National Council of Negro Women and home of civil rights leader Mary McLeod Bethune, and the Alabama church led by a co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, which was bombed three times between 1956 and 1962.

Thanks to the photographs taken for the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), we can see these places where history happened, adding a visual component to the written record:

Perspective view of the west elevation, looking from the southwest - The Hermitage, West Cabin, 4580 Rachel's Lane, Hermitage, Davidson County, TN. Photo by Jack E. Boucher, 1999. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hhh.tn0304/color.314303c

Perspective view of the west elevation, looking from the southwest – The Hermitage, West Cabin, 4580 Rachel’s Lane, Hermitage, Davidson County, TN. Photo by Jack E. Boucher, 1999. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hhh.tn0304/color.314303c Part of HABS TENN,19-NASH.V,1A-

View Of East Elevation Without Scale - 1318 Vermont Avenue, Northwest (Mary McLeod Bethune House), Washington, District of Columbia, DC. Photo by Jack E. Boucher, July 1993. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hhh.dc0884/color.361876c  Part of  <a href="//www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/hh/item/dc0884/">HABS DC,WASH,589-</a>

View Of East Elevation Without Scale – 1318 Vermont Avenue, Northwest (Mary McLeod Bethune House), Washington, District of Columbia, DC. Photo by Jack E. Boucher, July 1993. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hhh.dc0884/color.361876c Part of HABS DC,WASH,589-

EXTERIOR VIEW, FRONT (NORTH) FACADE - Bethel Baptist Church, 3233 Twenty-ninth Avenue, North, Birmingham, Jefferson County, AL. Photo by Jet Lowe, 1999. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hhh.al1126/color.571925c  Part of <a href="//www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/hh/item/al1126/">HABS ALA,37-BIRM,26-</a>

EXTERIOR VIEW, FRONT (NORTH) FACADE – Bethel Baptist Church, 3233 Twenty-ninth Avenue, North, Birmingham, Jefferson County, AL. Photo by Jet Lowe, 1999. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hhh.al1126/color.571925c Part of HABS ALA,37-BIRM,26-

The three structures above and tens of thousands more are documented in surveys, which are often composed of photographs, drawings and textual histories. These surveys are part of the Historic American Buildings Survey, Historic American Engineering Record and the Historic American Landscapes Survey (HABS/HAER/HALS). One of the main goals of HABS is to capture examples of American architecture, including famous buildings like the White House as well as examples of building types and features, such as flour mills or Palladian windows. Buildings with historical significance beyond the architecture also appear in HABS, and it’s this aspect that recently caught my eye. There are subjects associated with each survey, and often a statement of significance, which explains why a building was chosen to be documented. The three buildings above were assigned the subject of “civil rights,” making it easy to search for them in the collection without knowing the names of each structure.

The term “African Americans” is also assigned to just over 300 surveys in HABS, and for a wide variety of reasons. There are homes of African Americans from all walks of life, such as the Philadelphia row house of jazz legend John Coltrane and the Massachusetts residence of 19th century abolitionist and activist William C. Nell, both seen below:

John Coltrane House, 1511 North Thirty-third Street, Philadelphia, Philadelphia County, PA. Photo by Joseph Elliott, 2000. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hhh.pa3863/photos.381328p  Part of <a href="//www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/hh/item/pa3863/">HABS PA,51-PHILA,756</a>

John Coltrane House, 1511 North Thirty-third Street, Philadelphia, Philadelphia County, PA. Photo by Joseph Elliott, 2000. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hhh.pa3863/photos.381328p Part of HABS PA,51-PHILA,756

VIEW OF MAIN (SOUTH) FACADE FROM SOUTHWEST - William C. Nell House, 3 Smith Court, Boston, Suffolk County, MA. Photo by Hutchins Photography, Inc., 1980. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hhh.ma1282/photos.075947p  Part of <a href="//www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/hh/item/ma1282/">HABS MASS,13-BOST,126-</a>

VIEW OF MAIN (SOUTH) FACADE FROM SOUTHWEST – William C. Nell House, 3 Smith Court, Boston, Suffolk County, MA. Photo by Hutchins Photography, Inc., 1980. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hhh.ma1282/photos.075947p Part of HABS MASS,13-BOST,126-

There are buildings designed by African American architects, such as the 1918 Villa Lewaro in Westchester County, NY. The architect, Vertner Woodson Tandy, was New York’s first licensed black architect, and his client was none other than Madame C. J. Walker, a successful African American businesswoman in the cosmetics industry.

VIEW OF EAST ELEVATION - Villa Lewaro, North Broadway, Irvington, Westchester County, NY. Photo. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hhh.ny1336/photos.124570p  Part of <a href="//www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/hh/item/ny1336/">HABS NY,60-IRV,5-</a>

VIEW OF EAST ELEVATION – Villa Lewaro, North Broadway, Irvington, Westchester County, NY. Photo. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hhh.ny1336/photos.124570p Part of HABS NY,60-IRV,5-

Still other structures stood witness to significant moments, such as Roosevelt Stadium in New Jersey, where Jackie Robinson broke the baseball color barrier by playing in a 1946 minor league game.

BASEBALL DIAMOND, LOOKING EAST - Roosevelt Stadium, State Route 440 & Danforth Avenue, Jersey City, Hudson County, NJ. Photo by Rob Tucher, August 1984. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hhh.nj1029/photos.113161p  Part of <a href="//www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/hh/item/nj1029/">HABS NJ,9-JERCI,16-</a>

BASEBALL DIAMOND, LOOKING EAST – Roosevelt Stadium, State Route 440 & Danforth Avenue, Jersey City, Hudson County, NJ. Photo by Rob Tucher, August 1984. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hhh.nj1029/photos.113161p Part of HABS NJ,9-JERCI,16-

HABS also includes homes which were built in African American settlements after the U.S. Civil War, institutions of higher learning and churches that anchored communities. There are plantations where enslaved African Americans worked and the residences of pioneering men like Blanche K. Bruce, born a slave and later elected to the U.S. Senate in 1874. Seeing the halls these figures of the past walked and the places they lived offers a new perspective on history.

Learn More:

2 Comments

  1. Jack C. Templeton Jr.
    February 10, 2016 at 4:30 pm

    There is a crossroads outside Natchez Mississippi where US Hwys
    84 & 98 west join US hwy 61 south that I passed at least 1,000
    times. Never thought much about it till discovering that prior to the
    civil war there was a huge slave market there. Wish I had learned
    this in High School but political correctness cuts both ways.

  2. Gay Colyer
    February 15, 2016 at 10:25 am

    Great selections for this post, Kristi. Really show the breadth of subjects and time periods represented in the collection.

Add a Comment

This blog is governed by the general rules of respectful civil discourse. You are fully responsible for everything that you post. The content of all comments is released into the public domain unless clearly stated otherwise. The Library of Congress does not control the content posted. Nevertheless, the Library of Congress may monitor any user-generated content as it chooses and reserves the right to remove content for any reason whatever, without consent. Gratuitous links to sites are viewed as spam and may result in removed comments. We further reserve the right, in our sole discretion, to remove a user's privilege to post content on the Library site. Read our Comment and Posting Policy.

Required fields are indicated with an * asterisk.