On Tuesday, Professor Mabel Wilson from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation read an excerpt from her upcoming book about race and architecture. The 30-minute event was part of the University of Michigan’s Institute for the Humanities FellowSpeak series and explored the racial history behind the architecture of the Virginia statehouse and Thomas Jefferson’s history of belittling African-American intellect.
Wilson is a Norman Freehling Visiting Fellow at the University’s Institute for the Humanities. Her talk was delivered to an intimate audience of 25 people, mostly consisting of department faculty and other fellows.
Gretchen O’Hair, administrative assistant and fellows coordinator, said the FellowSpeak serves as an opportunity for fellows to share their research and learn from one another.
“It’s an opportunity for our existing fellows and our visiting fellows to bring what they’re working on to the table within a 30-minute to an hour speech,” O’Hair said.
Jessica Walker, an LSA collegiate fellow in American culture, said Wilson’s talk was beneficial to her research.
“That notion that architecture is an extension of this notion of reason, that’s separated by Europeans and those who aren’t, I think is important to my work,” Walker said. “I work on kitchen and domestic spaces, and I think those also are designed with a similar type of, ‘They tell you how to cook in whatever nation you’re in, and that tells you how to be the right class, be a normal person, belong to a group,’ food is very important to that. So I will take that with me especially.”
Wilson said the most important discovery she made through her research relates to the long-standing and intense nature of racism in the United States’ foundation.
“For me, the biggest revelation is that the challenges that the United States’ face have their DNA back to the founding in original colonial history of the nation,” Wilson said. “It’s not new. At all. So that’s been interesting for me at least.”
For Keith Mitnick, an associate professor of architecture and Institute for the Humanities fellow, details of Jefferson’s disdain for Black intellect — saying the poems of Phillis Wheatley, a reknowned African-Amerian poet, were below the dignity of criticism and claiming African Americans lacked the ability to appreciate beauty or comprehend the law, according to Wilson’s research — came as a surprise.
“A lot of it surprised me,” Mitnick said. “I’m from Philadelphia, so I grew up with a lot of this kind of architecture from that period, and Thomas Jefferson’s always celebrated as the founding father of this idealistic view for a radical country that’s departing from the English model, and yet you find out how deeply-seated racism is in our culture, so the fact that it’s actually ingrained in forms of our architecture is both sobering and important to think about.”
Wilson later expanded on the economic complications of slavery and how it relates to core American values.
“I think that it’s a complicated moral bind that people found themselves in. Some of the wealthy elites, they let their slaves free, because they recognized that they can’t say, ‘I believe in freedom and yet I hold another human in bondage,’” Wilson said. “Others, like Jefferson, were financially dependent, because not only do the slaves work, they have value. They’re worth money, so it’s like land. So there was this huge investment in slaves as property, essentially, as well as the labor that slaves did in order to build the wealth of people. So the complexity of the history of the slavery and its intertwined relationship to American ideas of freedom and to mercantile and industrial capitalism. It’s fascinating and there’s so many great scholars and artists doing work on the topic. Still much to know.”