Helping to reclaim the African American spaces left behind by school desegregation is the focus of new work by Tulane School of Architecture faculty Laura Blokker, Interim Director and Lecturer of Preservation Studies, and Andrew Liles, AIA, Adjunct Assistant Professor in Architecture, at the Tulane School of Architecture.
Blokker and Liles recently received a national grant for $15,000 to support work already underway by alumni of under-documented mid-century African American schools in Louisiana. The biennial Richard L. Blinder Award is given through the Trustees of the James Marston Fitch Charitable Foundation. The award will be used to help the alumni pursue adaptive reuse strategies for the schools.
“This work all really stems from alumni of these schools who are trying to reclaim them for the future of their communities,” Blokker said. “By getting this award, Liles and I will be able to put our professional services to work for them. The project will entail a stakeholder meeting to gather input in addition to the work throughout with individuals and groups affiliated with the various buildings.”
Much is already known of Rosenwald Schools, the buildings constructed with support of the Julius Rosenwald Fund between 1917 and 1932 for educating African American youth in the South. Far less is known of their successors, the large-scale mid-twentieth-century schools constructed in states such as South Carolina, Mississippi and Louisiana as last-ditch efforts to protect segregation by providing “separate but equal” facilities for Black students. More than schools, these structures, with their large gymnasiums, auditoriums and fields, hosted parades and dances, sports games and community gatherings. Following school integration in 1970, many of these facilities in Louisiana were closed.
Now, building on the advocacy and preservation efforts already begun by alumni and community groups throughout the state – individuals long striving to save their historic schools and preserve their heritage – Blokker and Liles, are studying potential for adaptive reuse. Blokker and Liles will confront realities of cultural memory, interpretation and reuse of historic properties.
“For many years, these mid-century African American school buildings have sat vacant, many preferring they be forgotten and their history silenced,” Blokker said. “We must not ignore America’s past. These schools were created in the era of segregation and that story must be told – not to commemorate oppression, but to celebrate the legacy of generations of African American educators, leaders, and communities who nurtured these learning environments and sprung from them.”
The project will begin with identifying as many as possible of the surviving mid-century African American school buildings in Louisiana. This work will build off of an existing online map of historic schools to locate extant mid-century buildings and document them.
Once this survey is complete, the overall design, plans, and materials of the school plants will be assessed and categorized. This will serve as the basis for the next steps of identifying potential reuse schemes and outlining specific preservation recommendations and ideas for new design interventions. A meeting of stakeholders from across the state will be convened to brainstorm about potential uses of schools in different communities.
Based on the survey of existing buildings and concepts for reuse, recommendations for material and future preservation and design interventions will be created for the different categories of design, plans, and materials. Two schools will be selected to create example visioning plans of the potential of preservation and new design interventions to bring these campuses back to life. The final product will be a graphic and textual handbook of materials and plans with correlating recommendation for preservation and new design, featuring the example vision renderings along with other photographs and illustrations. This will be distributed to all known stakeholders.