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:
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:
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 Madam C. J. Walker, a successful African American businesswoman in the cosmetics industry.
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.
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.
- Explore all of the Historic American Buildings Surveys (HABS) which relate to the subject of African Americans.
- View photographs and drawings and read more about the sites in HABS associated with civil rights, stretching from the mid-19th century and into the modern civil rights movement.
- Browse other subject headings assigned to sites in HABS/HAER/HALS, including some mentioned in this post: flour mills, Palladian windows, row houses, log cabins, and Baptist churches.
- Read previous Picture This posts about the extensive HABS/HAER/HALS collection.
- Enjoy the events, exhibits and online presentations celebrating African American History Month sponsored by the Library of Congress and numerous other federal institutions.