Keep the Commons

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Preserving the unique design legacy of Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

By Anjulie Rao

On college campuses across the country, late summer yields the air of transformation; students and their families arrive on campus and embark on rituals and rites that change those students into members of a new community. Many universities take advantage of their campuses—their histories, landscapes, and buildings—to embed celebratory traditions and rites of passage for their students. For Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), those traditions are a source of community identity, centered around significant campus landscapes. At Spelman College in Atlanta, a women’s HBCU, students partake in a “Parting” ceremony, held at the college’s campus Oval. Surrounded by campus buildings, students, dressed all in white per college tradition, prepare to say goodbye to their families to join the Spelman College community.

Yet as campuses grow and evolve to accommodate new technology and facilities, those landscapes are at risk. The National Trust for Historic Preservation has recently launched the HBCU Cultural Heritage Stewardship Initiative—a $1 million pilot program to help guide HBCU campus leaders to preserve their landscapes and, by extension, their traditions of community strength and scholarly excellence.

Morgan State University’s Banneker Hall was named for Benjamin Banneker, a Black inventor known for making the first striking clock built in America. Photo by Paul Burk.

The preservation architect Arthur Clement knows these campuses well; he has written several scholarly articles and completed projects on HBCU campuses. He’s also a part of a matriarchal lineage of Spelman women—his mother and his eldest sister are alumnae; his daughter is a current student. As such, he’s an advocate for preserving these places and sits on the National Trust’s Advisory Committee for the HBCU preservation program.

“When you look at HBCU campuses, the landscape becomes a background for ceremonies or traditions, the events that go on there, the setting for the meanings of these customs and traditions,” Clement says.

At the men-only Morehouse College in Atlanta, students participate in a variety of activities at the historic Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel (named after their noted alumnus). Though the chapel once hosted daily services, its programming has evolved to host visiting lecturers, film screenings, music performances, and more. For Frank Lawrence Jr., a 2019 Morehouse graduate, the campus’s built environment was a place for comfort and inspiration.

“The entire campus is special,” Lawrence says. “I spent a lot of time in different spaces on campus because there are writing and quotes from different alumni everywhere.” Lawrence would often visit the Howard Washington Thurman National Memorial (called the Obelisk) that is dedicated to the theologian and civil rights leader Howard Thurman. “The Obelisk has a bunch of paragraphs from Howard’s writings. I’d read those habitually, especially when I was struggling,” he says.

Lawrence notes that many of the biggest campus traditions take place during freshman orientation, when students would learn about the historic significance of their college from upperclassmen who take students from one place to another and speak to the power of being “Morehouse Men.” “It’s magical; they become inspired to be the best [they] can be in life,” Lawrence says. “They go to the King statue or to the site where a former [Morehouse] president is buried. The campus becomes meticulously tied to the Morehouse experience.”

“Through these activities, these young men become a part of that tradition of Morehouse Men who excel,” adds Clement. “[HBCUs] have used this idea of heritage and culture to really fashion an identity that’s connected with who [students] are.”

At Jackson State University, the Gibbs-Green Memorial Plaza is a hub for student activism and activity including voter registration drives, student services, and general leisure. Photo by Charles Smith.

Landscapes are the backdrop to student life and contribute to academic excellence, but they also reflect those schools’ histories. According to Clement, Hampton University, an HBCU in Hampton, Virginia, grew in prominence in the 19th century and required new facilities for students. Like Tuskegee University, another HBCU in Alabama, the rapid growth and interest in educating Black scholars encouraged campuses to expand. Some of those facilities, he noted, were built by students themselves.

“Hampton and Tuskegee became the leading proponents of vocational training,” Clement says. “So when you see those campuses, buildings are smaller, built [of] stone, built by students and faculty. The bricks were handmade, the trees were planted, the landscaping was done by students.”

Spaces for tearful farewells, joyful beginnings, and ceremonious inductions all play a part in telling the stories of HBCUs. According to Robert Melnick, FASLA, a University of Oregon professor emeritus and cultural landscape historian who also sits on the Trust’s HBCU Cultural Heritage Stewardship Initiative Advisory Committee, what sets HBCU campuses apart from other types of campuses is their planning: their tight-knit footprints that echo their tight-knit communities.

“If you look at Florida A&M University, it’s a very interesting campus, largely because of the way it edges the community,” Melnick says. “Lots of campuses do that, but many don’t; people can just walk on and off campus and there’s not really a sense of enclosure…even in smaller campuses. You don’t have that sense of tightness about them that I tend to think HBCUs have now.”

The significance of keeping an HBCU’s campus tightly planned, Melnick says, was initially an issue of safety. Many HBCUs were founded before and during abolition, when seeking education as a Black American was fraught. Enclosing campuses through planning was a significant feature. “[Campuses] provided a place of safety and protection within a community—a lot of the HBCU campuses face inward rather than outward. And my understanding of it is that was very purposeful,” he says. What that purposeful design yielded was a community identity rooted in place.

Stillman College’s Winsborough Hall was constructed by the Women of the Presbyterian Church in 1922. Photo by Michael A. Hubbard.

Melnick’s view echoes what many alumni feel when looking back upon their time as students: The importance of campus life isn’t just about singular historic buildings or landscapes. “We tend to think of campuses as buildings, but in fact, it’s all the space between the buildings where things really happen; where people gather, where marching bands play, where you have picnics. If you think about where you went to college, a lot happens in the dorms or in the classrooms, but a lot happens outside of that environment,” he says.

What happens in between can be put at risk, Melnick says, when campuses begin to expand their footprint to accommodate new buildings. Campus master planning is a massive undertaking, requiring capital campaigns, alumni engagement, and significant disruptions to campus life—all of which could result in the destruction of significant buildings, landscape elements, and communal spaces that define life at an HBCU. In 2020, the National Trust, in conjunction with the National Endowment for the Humanities, launched the HBCU Cultural Heritage Stewardship Initiative to provide funding and guidance for HBCU campuses embarking on a master plan. The program will help preserve the unique community life of those campuses while updating facilities for a new generation of scholars.

“A lot of HBCUs are suffering from deferred maintenance and other issues that impact the preservation of historic resources on campuses,” says Tiffany Tolbert, a senior field officer at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

“We want to allow HBCUs to start thinking about developing these plans that can guide the decisions that are being made for future growth for the campuses, taking into account the historic resources, but also the culture of organizations, activism, music, and art,” Tolbert says.

The pilot grant is funded through the Trust’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund. It will initially allow eight schools to hire consultants such as landscape architects, architects, or engineers to survey and assess their existing campus assets, including historic and modern buildings (built as recently as 1980) as well as campus monuments and landscapes. Schools will also consult with a diverse group of alumni, administrators, and residents and businesses proximate to those colleges. And Tolbert also hopes that the partner schools will engage students to be a part of the planning process, bringing in a new generation of designers and preservationists to participate.

Tolbert says the program will also create a peer-to-peer network of HBCU campus administrators, many of whom are dealing with similar issues of deferred maintenance and developing cohesive campus plans.

“Schools that are funded [and] are going through this process…can be a resource or mentor to another school to [help them] think of how to start this process for themselves,” Tolbert says.

Spelman College’s landscape is linked to many important traditions. Photo courtesy Broadmoor via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Tolbert anticipates some challenges, such as schools that have created planning processes without those stewardship or preservation components. “Some schools,” she says, “have a campus master plan in place, and in some cases, it might have a preservation component, but more likely than not it doesn’t. So, if it doesn’t have a preservation component, the issue would be integrating these recommendations from a cultural stewardship plan into the master plan that has already been adopted.” Ultimately, the National Trust will guide these schools toward stitching together stewardship with modernization. The response, she says, is “exciting.” Since opening the pilot phase, they received 34 proposals and recently awarded eight schools—Benedict College, Columbia, South Carolina; Jackson State University, Jackson, Mississippi; Lane College, Jackson, Tennessee; Morgan State University, Baltimore; Philander Smith College, Little Rock, Arkansas; Spelman College, Atlanta; Stillman College, Tuscaloosa, Alabama; and Tuskegee University, Tuskegee, Alabama—a total of $650,000.

It’s important to the National Trust to fund these types of initiatives to preserve campus heritage, but also to ensure that the stories of their students and alumni are uplifted in a meaningful way. Creating a campus master plan is similar to the college experience itself: It’s a big, bold endeavor marked by small moments spent in community with peers, faculty, mentors, and others. In that sense, it’s not just the remarkable legacy of Spelman College that the National Trust and its HBCU partners seek to preserve. It’s the moment that the graduating class of women, dressed in white, is escorted by past Spelman graduates through the campus Oval and under the Alumnae Arch, marking the end of their time as students and welcoming them into another, broader community.

Anjulie Rao is a Chicago-based journalist and critic focusing on the built environment.

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