Sambo Mockbee: Legacy, Community, and the Empowerment of Myth

When the American Institute of Architects awarded Samuel (Sambo) Mockbee the AIA Gold Medal in 2003, he joined an elite company of architects (including Thomas Jefferson) who received the award posthumously. “The AIA does not like to confer a gold medal on people who are no longer living,” says architect Tom Howorth. “It’s an award for those who have the potential to continue contributing to the field of architecture. The fact that it was conferred on Sambo confirms he is continuing to shape the architectural landscape.”

The Cook House, near Oxford, Mississippi (photo by Undine Proh)

Sambo Mockbee died in 2001. Hailed as a visionary with designs such as the Barton House in Madison, the Cook House in Oxford and the Magee Church of Christ to name a very few, Mockbee set an even higher benchmark when he and D.K. Ruth co-founded the Rural Studio at Auburn University. There in the heart of Alabama’s Black Belt, the studio continues to be a place where students learn the social responsibilities of architecture by creating homes and buildings with a spirit for poor communities.

“Sambo’s mission was to see about people,” Jackie Mockbee says. Jackie married Sambo in 1970. “We had two blind dates, we really did,” Jackie says. “The first was at a homecoming for Sambo when he was at Fort Benning. I’m sure he didn’t remember me; I just remember having fun watching everyone there. Two years later, my cousin called me and said they were going to a party and said there’s this guy that we all know who needs a date. They started telling me who he was, and. I said, ‘Wait a minute; I’ve had a date with him before.’ They asked me if I had fun, and I told them that we really didn’t get to know one another. That night, Sambo asked me if I went to MSCW, if I was a Baptist and if I’d marry him. I said, ‘Yes, yes and no.’ That was in August. We were married that December.” The Mockbees had four children, but Jackie remembers that at their home in Canton, “We had kids everywhere.” Jackie says. “They ran all around the neighborhood, but always ended up in our yard. Sambo was like the Pied Piper; he always had something going on, he was always the coach, and when he hit that door, the kids came running.”

“He was a gregarious, affable, lovable teddy-bear of a guy,” says Malcolm White, a long-time friend. “Once you became his friend, you were his friend for life. He loved collecting eclectic personalities. He was an engaging conversationalist and could sit up literally all night and carry on about Van Gogh or the Civil War or American history or Western civilization or anything else you might be interested in.”

Magee Church of Christ (photo by L. David Fox)“He believed in legacy, he believed in creating things that would last,” Malcolm says. “He wrote a check out of an account that didn’t have a nickel in it for the first float that I ever purchased, the very same trailer that the Sweet Potato Queens use today.”

“In the early 80s, Sambo had an office on North Street on a stretch of property that’s now parking lots,” Malcolm says. “On Friday afternoons, Sambo would gather people and would serve Heinekens, which he loved, and sausages or peanuts, whatever he had on hand. Sambo began to explain to us that he had this big idea that he was closing in on, this notion that was going to involve all of us,” Malcolm says. “He wanted to empower rural people of little means in the same way that wealthy people could empower him to design beautiful, elaborate offices. He wanted to incorporate not just architecture and design, but philanthropy and entertainment and recreation, all the components that build community. Basically what he was talking about became the Rural Studio.”

Former partner Coleman Coker first met Mockbee in Corinth. “I think in 1980 or 1981, and we hit it off, just sitting around and talking. Neither one of us had much work at the time,” Coleman says. “He was making a lot of collages, I was painting, and that’s where we found a commonality in translating the world as we saw it through our constructions and paintings into architectural compositions. We never were successful going out and marketing ourselves, particularly to corporate clients,” Coleman says. “Most of the work we were proudest of involved small residences for people looking for something different, looking for something that had a relationship to place, to locale. Most of those buildings were reflections of the clients, an extension of their personalities, and as we got more built, more people would see them and give us a call.”

“We didn’t sit around talking about the work of other architects; we’d talk about literature—Welty and Faulkner—looking for roots, connections to place, and we found that so much more directly through Southern writers,” Coleman says. “There’s no long tradition of Southern architecture outside of the classical, which comes from Europe, and we weren’t looking for that. We were trying to build on what was just beneath the surface here in the Deep South, whether it was black culture or the culture of the landed gentry, whatever mythology could be unearthed.” Mythology, Coleman admits, is “difficult to talk about.”

“Sambo, through the paintings that he did, was building a whole mythological world,” Coleman says. “Characters would repeat themselves throughout the paintings, and they started telling a narrative. It’s easier to render a narrative through literature, even through painting, than it is through architecture, yet you strive to expound those roots and reprocess them through design. Our concern with social responsibility in professional ethics fell in trying to reach out to a group that was estranged otherwise,” Coleman says. “We were trying to design in context with this locale, the locale in a social sense, when the abject poverty in much of Mississippi was virtually ignored by the great majority of designers and the great majority of people who could afford architects.”

“Eutaw: Children of Eutaw Pose Before their Ancient Cabin” (Mural, photo by L. David Fox)

In 1993, Mockbee and D.K. Ruth founded the Rural Studio. “Prior to the Rural Studio there were a few notable construction-focused, hands-on learning opportunities in architecture schools in the country, notably at Yale,” says Tom Howorth, also a former partner. “But there was nothing on the scale, level of commitment and pedagogical continuity that runs through the Rural Studio. Now there are those sorts of programs across the country. So much of what we do is picked from catalogues that the work of putting buildings together becomes a matter of picking the systems that exist and putting them together in a way that you solve the client’s problem,” Tom says. “That wasn’t what Sambo was interested in; he was interested in creating from scratch. He challenged students to think originally.”

Daughter Carol Mockbee recalls that “Papa (Sambo) first started talking about the Subrosa Pantheon in 1999. In the summer of 2001, they started digging in the Alabama clay. D.K.’s mother had died, as well as two young professors at Auburn, and that was probably when they came to the decision to build a memorial space for the Rural Studio, a place to remember and meditate and reflect. So they started digging out the site for the Pantheon in Newbern. By August, they’d poured the first slab. Papa got really sick that fall and passed away in December.”

“The project was suspended for two years,” Carol says. “After I graduated from Auburn in interior design I applied to the Rural Studio as an outreach student to finish the Pantheon. I knew the idea, knew my father’s mythology behind it, and knew that he loved the project. Had I known then what I know now, I don’t think I would have touched it. But, luckily, I was ignorant, young and energetic. For the first few months, I worked on other projects. I had to find my own way, find my role and boundaries. Everyone was skeptical; one engineer at Auburn said, ‘You know, if you were my daughter, I would not let you do this.’ I left that meeting thinking that I am Sambo Mockbee’s daughter and he wouldn’t want me to be doing anything else. I completed it on August 27, 2005. I was so preoccupied with my last pour three days before that I had no idea Katrina was coming.”

“Every June 21, you can go into the Pantheon and stand at different points, align yourself with stars and planets, then sit on a bench next to someone, lean away from them, whisper into a pipe on your side, and the secret travels back to them.”

Samuel Mockbee (photo courtesy AIA)

The Segregated Landscape

Jennifer Baughn says of her important work, Buildings of Mississippi, that the goal “from the start was to integrate—and I use that word purposely—black and white landscapes.” In this splendid essay (presented as a sidebar on p. 313), Baughn explains how the components of Mississippi’s landscape came to reflect the divisions of the state’s closed society.

Before the Civil War, enslaved blacks were discouraged or prohibited from congregating without white oversight, and although blacks and whites interacted on a daily basis, it was in the context of owner and owned, powerful and powerless. For a brief period following emancipation this power relationship eased, but after 1896, when the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) that “separate but equal” facilities were constitutional, all manner of places and spaces began to be segregated.

As blacks began to move to urban centers around 1890, new neighborhoods of narrow streets and alleys lined mostly with shotgun houses were developed, as for example the Henry Addition (see DR54) in Greenwood. Dense populations, limited employment opportunities, and widespread poverty characterized many of Mississippi’s black neighborhoods, even as they gave rise to an African American middle and upper class. Towns with large black populations–notably Jackson, Greenville, Meridian, Hattiesburg, and Clarksdale–often developed a separate, self-contained African American community with its own business district, hotels, churches, cultural center, schools, and funeral homes. Although often located adjacent to industrial or flood-prone areas, these districts gave African Americans relative security to form their own institutions without white interference. Because churches were one of the few institutions owned and run by black leaders, they became the anchors of such neighborhoods, but public and private schools also provided focus and space for community events.

By the early 1950s, a rising African American middle class began to embrace suburban living, moving out of the old mainstays such as Jackson’s Farish and Greenville’s Newtown neighborhoods into new black subdivisions lined with small ranch houses, such as the residence of Medgar and Myrlie Evers. By 1960 many black congregations with modest newfound wealth began replacing their older churches with new buildings. Such projects often allowed black architects (e.g., DeWitt Dykes and Clair M. Jones) to make their mark in such churches as Laurel’s St. Paul Methodist (pictured below). It was in this complex landscape of neighborhoods dotted with bungalows and shotgun houses and modern schools and churches that the civil rights movement formed and activated around the state.

 

(From Buildings of Mississippi, published 2021 by the Society of Architectural Historians and the University of Virginia Press).

Buildings of Mississippi: A Review

Books about Mississippi architecture tend to focus on poverty-stricken African-American communities or the antebellum and Victorian-era mansions of the state’s white elite. Buildings of Mississippi finally puts them side-by-side, as they actually have been for centuries.

“Our goal from the start was to integrate—and I use that word purposely—black and white landscapes,” said co-author Jennifer Baughn. “This book helps illustrate how the two races did interact in some ways, and in other ways were separated.”

Nine years in the making, Buildings of Mississippi is the 26th volume of the Buildings of the United States (BUS) series commissioned by the Society of Architectural Historians (SAH). This series documents state-by-state the full range of structures that are deemed of historical or architectural interest by experts in the field. Jennifer V. O. Baughn is Chief Architectural Historian at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History and the author of numerous articles on the state’s historic buildings. The late Michael W. Fazio was Professor Emeritus of Architecture at Mississippi State University and coauthor of Buildings across Time: An Introduction to World Architecture. Mary Warren Miller is Executive Director Emeritus of the Historic Natchez Foundation and coauthor of The Great Houses of Natchez.

Illustrated with photographs and maps, and newly redesigned in a more user-friendly format, readers of Buildings of Mississippi will come to know the history of 557 sites, illustrated by 249 photographs (all but 33 taken by Baughn and Fazio) and 29 maps. Along with stately plantation houses (and their housings for slaves), the volume surveys a range of other locations such as Native American mounds and villages, 20th-century enclaves built for sawmill workers, neighborhoods that bolstered black Mississippians during segregation, and the vernacular streetscapes of small towns as well as modern architecture in Greenville, Meridian, Jackson, and Biloxi.

The buildings are grouped into twelve regions that move roughly from the southwest corner of the state to the north, the east, the center, and then south to the Gulf Coast. Buildings of Mississippi includes such wide-ranging places as Longwood and Wister Gardens, Poor Monkeys, Club Ebony, and Dockery Farms in the Delta, the Coca Cola Company in McComb, Ginntown Rosenwald School near Tylertown, Holy Child Jesus Catholic Church in Canton, Shiloh Methodist Campground and Piney Woods School in Rankin County, the fabulous St. Michaels Catholic Church (round with a clam shell roof) in Biloxi, and the oldest house in the Mississippi Valley, “Old Spanish Fort”/de la Pointe-Krebs House in Pascagoula.

Baughn said that the books in the series used to be hardback, and were more like reference works. That seemed puzzling to her, since reference books on such a specialized subject have primarily professional appeal. The new field guide format is a recent innovation, and Baughn considers it a more natural option, more appealing to a wider readership, people who might put the book in a car or backpack for a trip. Buildings of Mississippi is also the first book in the series to be all color.

“The criteria for inclusion were determined both by the SAH and our own knowledge and research,” Baughn said. “We generally focused on buildings that were on the National Register, or in the case of buildings from the 1960s through the present, we tried to identify those that were important for historical events or had won architectural awards. And once we started writing, as Michael Fazio said, the building had to have ‘a hook, a story’ that would make it an interesting entry for the reader.”

The buildings must still be standing, so there are no non-existent buildings included. They also must be accessible from a public right-of way or open to the public. “Unfortunately,” Baughn said, “that criteria excluded many rural houses that can’t be seen from a public right-of-way and aren’t public houses.”

“The Society of Architectural Historians (SAH), considers this to have an international audience. Well, I don’t know international audiences,” Baughn said. “My audience is the average Mississippian who enjoys history and historic buildings, and who likes going out in the state, driving around their town, small or large. I thought if these people were happy with the work, then international visitors would be happy, too.”

Buildings of Mississippi is an important work that brings the research on our state’s historic architecture up-to-date. The scholarship supporting the text is impeccable. The format is accessible to armchair historians and weekend travelers as well as tourists, and the illustrations—particularly the photographs—are lavish and outstanding. This book belongs in the hands of all Mississippians intrigued with our past.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Charlotte Capers: “The House”

In addition to their numerous charitable endeavors, the Junior League of Jackson has issued two quite remarkable publications. The first, in 1978, was their landmark Southern Sideboards, a truly luminous work that has since gone through fifteen printings, five of those Southern Living Hall of Fame editions. The recipes in Southern Sideboards altogether comprise nothing less than an exhaustive tutorial for home cooks in the Deep South, and if that weren’t enough also includes a heart-felt introduction by Wyatt Cooper.

Their second, more important work, is Jackson Landmarks (1982) dedicated to the Manship House, one of Jackson’s most beloved architectural treasures. Jackson Landmarks is important not only for the wealth of detail and historical data, but also because Jackson’s urban landscape has changed significantly in the 35 years since its publication, and an estimated 25-30% of these structures are gone.

Jackson Landmarks also includes this essay by Charlotte Capers. Miss Capers was director of the Mississippi Department of Archives & History from 1955-1969, and during that time saved the Old Capitol from destruction and saw to its renovation and establishment as the state historical museum. Miss Capers also oversaw the restoration of the Governor’s Mansion. In addition, Capers was a “world-class raconteur”, a writer (The Capers Papers as well as hundreds of magazine articles and book reviews) a wit and a close friend and companion of Eudora Welty. Charlotte Capers is a significant figure in Mississippi history and deserves a work of equal if not greater thoroughness than the one recently afforded Fannye Cook.

The House

My first opportunity to participate in this book was an invitation to write a brief and breezy history of Jackson.” Well, Jackson goes back to the 1820s and I don’t, so I declined. When I was reminded that I do go back to the 1920s, and what’s a hundred years more or less, I agreed to write a few recollections of my old home at 705 North State Street, as I remember it and as for me it was the heart of Jackson when I was very young.

When I first saw the house it was white, and I was five years old. Therefore, it remains in my memory as white, and only recently I learned that it was not white to begin with, but a darker hue much favored by home owners of the 1890s, when it was built. Perhaps it was buff or brown or gray. It doesn’t matter, except to point out that things are not always what they seem. The house was built by Mr. and Mrs. A. D. Gunning on the corner of North State and George streets. The Cunnings had a large family and must have been much given to hospitality, as the house was plainly built for entertaining. A large reception hall opened into a graceful living room on one side, and a dining room with striking midnight blue wallpaper and painted white paneling on the other. A mirror was built into the ornately carved hall mantelpiece; a central staircase which divided and curved upward from the landing was the architectural focus of the hall. Shining oak floors invited dancing, and of more concern to my mother, suggested more rugs than we had and required a good deal of waxing and polishing.

After the Cunnings, the house was owned by Mr. and Mrs. Arthur C. Crowder. Mr. Crowder was at one time mayor of Jackson; Mrs. Crowder was the former Mattie Robinson Saunders, whose family home was a block away on the corner of North State and Boyd streets. When the Crowders moved to Birmingham, the house was purchased by St. Andrew’s Church as a rectory for my father and his family. Subsequent owners were the Lamon Goings, who had a Studio of the Dance therein, and Mr. and Mrs. Harry Jacobs, who adapted the house for use as a retail outlet for their business, Greenbrook Flowers. The original architecture is essentially unchanged.

As I see the house now, it is big. As I looked at it with five-year-old eyes, it was tremendous. Adorned with every detail and conceit available to admirers of the Victorian style, it had towers, minarets, gables, a scary basement, a cobwebbed attic, cushioned window seats, and wonder of wonders, swinging doors for the dogs. Scaled to fit the family canines, these doors opened at the touch of a muzzle. When I tried to describe them to a contractor for my own house, he was confounded. My dogs have to bark to get in. So everything isn’t more convenient now than it used to be. Ask the dogs. Anyway, when I was a child I saw the house as a fairy-tale castle, and untroubled by the economic realities of maintaining such an establishment, I thought it was a perfect home.

This depends upon your point of view, of course, and I remember Our struggle to keep the house warm in the winter. Beautified by countless windows and French doors, 705 North State was a veritable cave of the winds. The windows called for draperies which we could not afford, so my mother settled for glass curtains. My childhood memories seem to return filtered through yards and yards of filmy material, which let in the light as well as the breezes. Another problem was the coal furnace. Coal was expensive, plus the fact that my father had to stoke the furnace and bring coal to the fireplaces throughout the house. My father solved this problem by rising above aesthetics and installing a pot-bellied stove squarely in the middle of the elegant reception hall. This at least indicates that he put first things first, like not freezing to death. The feature of the house which I remember with most affection, next to the dog doors, was my bathtub. It was splendid, something like a gondola, mounted on iron paws with a stalwart wooden rim. Into its watery vastness could submerge the vicissitudes of childhood, and dream great dreams as they soaked away. When I left that bathtub, and moved to a shorter and stubbier one, my dreams grew shorter and stubbier.

It seems to me that 705 North State Street was a fine place for growing up in Jackson and learning the lay of the land. Around the corner and less than five minutes by skate, foot, or bicycle, was Davis School. The New Capitol was only a few blocks away, and young skaters did not hesitate to skate through the tiled basement floor and admire the Egyptian mummy who was the star of the building. A streetcar track ran in front of the house. When we were very young, we would put two straight pins on the track, spit on them, and wait for the streetcar. As it rumbled past it fused the pins into a charming design of crossed swords. If you wished to travel, the streetcar could deliver you north, south, or west. East was the Pearl River, and the suburbs in that area were not yet developed. As St. Andrew’s was the only Episcopal church in Jackson for a long time, my father’s congregation was scattered all over town and from Clinton on the west to Madison on the north. Sometimes Father would let me ride with him in the family Essex when he went calling, and we covered a lot of territory. The Fairgrounds were within walking distance, as were the downtown picture shows. Beulah, my nurse, took me to the Fair every year on the five dollars my grandmother sent us. This included lunch. When we got home, Beulah became our cook. I should note that Beulah was not my nurse because I was sick, but because I was a child, and nurses were what children had in the 1920s. Nurses were for taking care of children, cooks were for cooking, and so far as I knew, maids had bit parts, like “Your carriage awaits, madam,” in the occasional stage plays which came to the Century Theater.

An interesting thing, at least to me, is the fact that I can remember the telephone numbers of the neighborhood children, I have always had a block in my head about numbers, and now I have trouble remembering my own telephone number. At any rate, to suggest the size Of Jackson in the 1920s, I could get Mary Woodliff at 2628; Winifred Green at 1210; Ann Sullens at 560; and Maude McLean at 247. As Maude’s father was a doctor, we thought we would help his practice, which did not need any help, by making up a jingle for him. It went like this: “If you think you’re going to heaven, call two-four-seven.” I believe you call the Fire Department nowadays, whatever your destination.

The Depression was an exciting time at 705 North State. There were a good many home weddings, as it was more economical to get married in the Rectory than in the home of the bride. Sometimes a drop-in bride and groom, having proven that they were of age and met other canonical requirements long since forgotten, got married in the living room, and if any of my friends were there Father might ask us to be witnesses. This custom ended when Winifred Green and I stood up with a lisping groom, and got the giggles every time he repeated his vows. Mother was good about entertaining, and we had a lot of company. I always had a Hallowe’en party and a birthday party, and during the Depression some of our company often included tramps. Tramps are now known as vagrants or street people, but they amount to the same thing. Our tramps knew the best places for a handout, and occasionally one would make a great impression on my father, who would invite him to spend a few days with us One of our favorites called himself Jiggs, and more than repaid us for our hospitality by his tales of travel and adventure. Jiggs left us wearing my father’s clerical vest, and some months later appeared in a news magazine, photographed in ecclesiastical garb while attending a Tramps’ Convention in Washington. It is interesting to observe that in spite of the real economic hardship of the Depression, I don’t remember it as a bad time. It was in the 1920s that we learned to dance, and perfected our skills later during the Depression at dances in our homes, including the Rectory, to the Dixieland jazz of Joe White and his combo, fifteen to twenty-five dollars for four hours, depending on the number of instruments.

This isn’t much of a “brief and breezy history of Jackson,” but it may recall a certain time in a certain place, both gone forever. North State Street has just about given up the ghost, the town has grown into a city, the city has spread into the suburbs, and sometimes I can’t remember my street address. •sour crowd” had a good time, there was room in our house for friends and my grandparents and my brother and his wife, and even for transients who could tell a tall tale. Much of what was once “old Jackson” was swept away by commercial development after World War Il, but as this is written, 705 North State Street still stands!