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.