African American Fabrics
Some basic structural forms may be linked to Africa. A great example is the Africa [or African] House down in Natchitoches, Louisiana, which has a huge hip roof and broad overhang. It looks strange at first, but then you realize that the building did not have a deep foundation. The overhangs protected the base of the building from water, while also allowing a second story up within the roof, which had slats for windows so that the air would circulate. The form of the building is derived from its construction methods and the weather conditions.
Moeller: There are many diverse building traditions in different parts of Africa. To what extent are there similar variations in African-American architecture?
Dozier: We wouldn’t just refer to “European architecture” as a single thing, would we? We understand that it reflects many very different periods and cultures. Africa, of course, is the same way.
Many of the differences in African-American architecture are regional variations, based to some extent on how much of the original African culture was retained. One example of strong retention is the Gullah/Geechee culture in South Carolina. The vernacular of the area followed early building traditions for a remarkably long time. Charleston also had a high degree of retention of the original culture. Even today, there’s an African- American blacksmith there named Peter Simmons who is carrying on [family craft] traditions that date back generations.
The Africa [or African] House on the Melrose Plantation in Natchitoches, Louisiana with its distinctive, overhanging roof.
Photo by Frank Hampson, courtesy of Library of Congress.The areas of greatest cultural retention are not actually in the U.S., but in the Caribbean, where many of the slaves were initially brought. That’s why you can still see extremely authentic architecture and even small villages in the Caribbean that really feel like they could be in Africa.
Moeller: What were some of the earliest examples of buildings created specifically by and for African Americans?
Dozier: You know, most people would probably immediately think of buildings in the South, but there are a considerable number in the North. For example, there is the African Meetinghouse in Boston, constructed in 1806 entirely with black labor, which was the oldest known extant African-American church building in the U.S. Also, it’s been discovered that a private house on Nantucket, which used to have a flourishing African-American community, is even older, dating back to the late 18th century. A good Southern example is St. Andrew’s Church in Prairieville, Alabama, [which was built] in 1853. We actually know the names of the specific slaves who built it. It was one of many churches thought to have been based on designs by the architect Richard Upjohn. One interesting aspect of this church was the stain used on the interior wood finishes—it was made from tobacco juice.
Moeller: How did African-American architecture develop after the Civil War, as former slaves adapted to freedom?
Dozier: The story of Robert R. Taylor is interesting. His father was a free person of color originally from Wilmington, North Carolina. Wilmington was an important center for African-American artisans and builders, and after he gained his freedom, Taylor’s father had developed a ship building and housebuilding business and became pretty successful. And then, in 1892, Robert went on to become the first known African American to finish architecture school—he graduated from MIT.
John Wesley Dobbs Plaza Atlanta, Georgia. The wall at right recalls ancient fortifications in southern Africa. In the background is a sculpture of Dobbs who encouraged African Americans to register to vote.