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).

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