Confronting Urban Design’s Diversity Crisis With a Return to Black Places

An initiative taking shape at the University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture wants to disrupt conventional notions of planning.

Story by Nina Feldman

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To find Shankleville, Texas, you have to know what you’re looking for.

The usual makings of a small town are nowhere to be found: no welcome sign with crests from the Lions Club, no post office. Shankleville isn’t technically a town — it won’t show up on a map. But hundreds of people live there, and thousands more are connected to it through their families, many of whom have lived there for generations. Shankleville is a black settlement, established just after emancipation by Jim and Winnie Shankle, who had been enslaved on a nearby plantation.

The story goes that Jim and Winnie were enslaved in Mississippi when they fell in love and got married. Soon after, Winnie was sold to a Texas slaveholder, and the two were separated. Determined to reunite, Jim escaped. He crossed three state lines and forded four major rivers until he made it to Texas. One day, Jim found Winnie collecting water from a stream in the woods near the plantation where she worked. For a time, he hid there, and she would sneak food to him. Eventually, though, the two realized this was unsustainable. They asked the owner of Winnie’s plantation to purchase Jim. He agreed and the couple went on to have six children. Emancipation would free the family in 1865 and soon after, Winnie and Jim began to acquire land in the woods around the stream where they had reunited years earlier. Eventually, the Shankles (and their descendants, including the McBride family) owned over 4,000 acres, and developed a robust economy in the area, including a gristmill, sugar plantations and a college. This was Shankleville.

Shankleville is one of more than 500 unincorporated freedmen’s colonies, also known as Freedom Colonies, across Texas. After the Civil War, there was a strong push by formerly enslaved African-Americans to own property. Families purchased land in clusters, and developed mostly agrarian communities. Despite their important role in reconstruction, many Freedom Colonies never sought recognition from state or local government.

“Courthouses were a little bit dangerous to show up at in 1890 and declare ‘hi, I’m an African-American and I own all this land,” says Andrea Roberts, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture who researches Freedom Colonies.

With a background in city government and finance, Roberts earned her doctorate at the University of Texas in Austin last year. As we drove through piney forests and rolling hills, the space between the houses grew wider, and Roberts, who grew up in Houston, turned to me and laughed. “This is the part where you’re wondering, ‘where am I really? I must’ve gone too far … .’”

Roberts is one of two emerging scholars in a new initiative at the University of Texas School of Architecture, focused on race and gender in the built environment. In her one-year postdoc appointment, Roberts is researching and writing about Freedom Colonies, and teaches students how to use ethnographic methods to identify and document cultural landscapes. The UT initiative aims to both increase diversity among School of Architecture faculty, and facilitate innovative approaches to thinking about race and gender within the coursework itself.

Roberts’ research is nothing if not innovative. Her interest in the Freedom Colonies came out of what she describes as an accumulation of variables, beginning with her experience working within Houston’s local government, first under Mayor Bill White and then Annise Parker. As a staffer for the city’s Department of Housing and Community Development, Roberts was in charge of the engagement process surrounding the city’s allocation of Community Development Block Grants, the federal government’s now embattled lifeline to areas with high rates of poverty. It was her job to get feedback and public input from everyone affected by how the taxpayer dollars were spent. After spending a lot of time in historically black communities throughout Houston, Roberts began to take issue with a principle in contemporary planning that presumes moving into “higher opportunity” and usually, correspondingly whiter areas, is a good thing for members of low-income communities of color. “They didn’t have the assumption of, ‘if you get more white people to move here things are gonna get better,” Roberts recalls of the residents she worked with. “They just wanted the right allocation of money to address their infrastructure need, just like anybody else.”

Andrea Roberts (Photo by Arnold Wells)

But that’s not what Roberts saw happening. The city’s planning strategies tended to idealize mixed-income development and promote measures intended to encourage higher-income (often white) residents to move into areas with high concentrations of African-Americans. For most of the city’s African-American residents who were living in homogenous communities of people who looked like them and earned similar, or lesser incomes, that meant new resources and amenities would come only when demographics showed signs of change.

“I just saw all these racial dynamics that were disconnected from these operating assumptions guiding the way federal policy was being executed on the ground,” Roberts remembers.

It was a dynamic that was familiar to the Houstonian. When Roberts, 44, was a kid, her parents would drop her off for the summer with her great-grandmother in Riceville, a small community between a bayou and a highway in Southwest Houston.

Roberts didn’t think of her great-grandmother’s area — annexed to the city in the late 1960s but without any city services including running water and sanitary sewers until 1982 — as part of a black settlement; to her, it was a small house with a big yard at the end of a bumpy road. There was a chicken coop, an outhouse that she hated, and plentiful supply of fresh fried chicken, which she loved. Roberts remembers her great-grandmother as totally self-sufficient: She grew her own food, lived without a faucet for clean water, never went to the doctor. When Roberts learned that Riceville was one of many African-American settlements, or Freedom Colonies, that existed off the grid on the outskirts of what is now sprawling, metropolitan Houston, she asked herself why no one had ever told her.

“They were so invisible that I grew up in them and did not even see them as such,” she says.

This failure to recognize Riceville for what it was — a black settlement with a waning population and a rich history — was another manifestation of the same out-of-touch strategies she had witnessed as a planner.

It was a recognition failure that held vast consequences for cities and especially, the communities of color within them. With this realization etched into her mind, Roberts decided to pursue a Ph.D. in community and regional planning at UT Austin and focus on the places elided by the field’s narrow frameworks, places like where her great-grandmother lived. At a time when urban centers are seeing racial demographics shift for the first time in generations, and cities — and planners, developers and architects — are confronting difficult questions about how to design for the future without replicating racist patterns of the past, Roberts’ work raises sharp questions.

“The definition of planning very often seems to be white people moving black people around,” Roberts says. “And the reason is such because a majority of people who are actual planners or planning educators are white.”

It is fitting, then, that she is one of the two scholars helping to shape a program that seeks to diversify the field of architecture and disrupt conventions of thinking that have become codified in largely white (and male) environments.

Planning for Which Spaces?

On a bright and crisp day last November, Roberts took me out to Shankleville, about two-and-a-half hours northeast of Houston in the area known as Deep East Texas. The community thrived from its inception in the late 1860s through the 1940s; at that point, many of the local jobs chopping lumber began to dry up and people started migrating to Houston or Beaumont, where there was more opportunity in petrochemical industries. Today, Shankleville is sparsely populated, with two churches along a stretch of two-lane road, dotted with simple single-story homes. To get there off the main highway, you can follow a green, federally issued sign, indicating that Shankleville is a few miles down. Until the 1980s, there was no sign, and the road was mud.

Though Shankleville is home to few today, it and many other settlements host large annual homecomings for families and descendants of families who used to live there. Every year, hundreds of people travel from across the state to spend the weekend in church and in celebration. As further testament to the deep connection families bear to the place, the size of the cemetery in Shankleville, and many settlements, is vastly disproportionate to its population. People come home to be buried.

Down the highway in the neighboring Pleasant Hill community, pastor Jules Williams leads a sizeable congregation every Sunday. An itinerant pastor, Williams was assigned to Pleasant Hill Church by the regional Methodist bishop. He lives in Beaumont and hadn’t heard the name before he got the job.

“We had to Google it, and there was no Googling,” Williams remembers. “We found a country road. So we kept driving a mile, and we found a church on a hill and here I am.”

Hardly anyone says they live in Pleasant Hill anymore — they might say Wiergate, an unincorporated former factory town, or Newton, the county seat with a population just over 2,000. But the church services and the cemetery see a lot of visitors with deep roots in Pleasant Hill. While I was there with Roberts, a family pulled their station wagon up to the chain-link fence surrounding the yard full of old, thin headstones. The kids began unloading wreaths woven of plastic carnations and roses, and carrying them to a grave with substantial adornment already. They were there to see their grandmother, May Adams, who had died two years ago. Adams’ daughter says that since her mother’s death, she has visited the grave monthly from her home about two hours away, to bring fresh flowers and a can of Coke.

The Jessie Gatlin-Lewis family poses for a photo in August 1965 at the Odom Shankleville Homestead after the Shankleville Homecoming.

In the United States, relationships like the one the Adams family has with Pleasant Hill are rarely taken into account when decisions are made about public investments in infrastructure, development or social services. Just before the last census, a study from the Brookings Institution found that census data (information collected about where people live, not where they have roots) guides 75 percent of federal grant giving and 31 percent of federal assistance — together more than $800 billion in federal funds annually. And while unincorporated places like Shankleville can always be designated for funding, it’s unlikely that resources would flow without a sizable population or a powerful constituency. More likely is that investments will be made that further marginalize these unmapped places. This approach has its shortcomings, especially as it relates to race, says Roberts.

For Roberts, a sense of place, especially for African-Americans, is less about permanent residency and more about diaspora.

“If you are to interrupt this space with a pipeline, a new freeway, clear-cutting — not only have you done something unpleasant and interrupted a sense of place, you’re interrupting people’s ability to have a communal identity.”

Roberts says architects and planners are not trained to tap into constituencies that are hard to locate.

“Even though there may be 200 people who care about the area and still own land or have affiliations, they’re not going to be there, so planners are not going to see them,” she says.

Roberts points to professionals in the neighboring disciplines of archaeology and cultural anthropology, whose methods embrace a more complex definition of citizenship and stakeholders.

“We can learn from them,” she says.

Diversity in Planning

The way Roberts approaches understanding of place is what attracted the School of Architecture at UT to her. Elizabeth Mueller is an associate professor in the community and regional planning program who helped solicit funding for the new initiative on race and gender in the built environment. She says the impetus for the initiative came from students, who wanted not only a diverse faculty but also a curriculum that reflected varied cultural experiences and perspectives.

“A lot of what we were hearing from students was not just about representation, but the way we think about these issues within our curriculum,” says Mueller. She says she sees Roberts’ research as having enormous impact on the way people in planning and historic preservation fields alike think about place and identity. She says her work on Freedom Colonies can be translated to a variety of scenarios and be used to galvanize advocacy and action.

Mueller and the group of faculty who applied for the funding from the university’s vice president for diversity and community engagement are hopeful that the initiative will grow. For now, during the 2016-2017 academic year, they were able to hire the two postdocs. (Anna Brand, the other emerging scholar, looks at today’s redevelopment of historic black neighborhoods and cultural corridors across the U.S. alongside changing commitments to equity for those who have traditionally suffered under urban revitalization policies.) Beginning in the fall, the initiative will replace one of the postdocs with an assistant professor whose focus will also be on gender and race in the built environment. They’ve applied and are hopeful for funding that would bring on a tenure track position for the 2018-2019 academic year. More positions and more funding, Mueller says, would help keep the initiative from being more than just a sidebar, and instead allow its spirit to permeate the overall consciousness of the School of Architecture.

“City planning as a field has been implicated in lots of bad things in terms of segregating things by race and income. Within planning there’s a lot of awareness about that,” says Mueller. “We need to be more conscious of it and not have it be just a kind of special elective.”

Mueller is not the only one who hopes the initiative will take root. Craig Wilkins is a lecturer on architecture at the University of Michigan and the author of “The Aesthetics of Equity,” which looks at how and why African-Americans have been excluded from the practice and study of architecture. He says that, while he’s hopeful the initiative at Texas and other recent efforts will blossom and influence other departments across the country, he’s skeptical. This is not the first push for inclusion he’s seen in the last three decades while he’s been practicing and thinking about diversity within the architectural field.

“Every now and then we look around and say, ‘we don’t have a lot of people of color — what can we do about this?” Wilkins says. “But the numbers stay the same. The opportunities stay the same.”

The numbers support Wilkins’ concern. In 1968, Whitney M. Young, civil rights leader and director of the Urban League, addressed the National Convention of the American Institute of Architects in Portland, Oregon. He spoke to a crowd of almost 4,000 architects, less than 10 of whom were black. Young was not hesitant to point this out to everyone there.

“You are most distinguished by your thunderous silence and your complete irrelevance,” he said of architects’ contributions to civil rights. “You are key people in planning our cities today — you share the responsibility for the mess we are in, in terms of the white noose around the central city. … We didn’t just suddenly get in this situation. It was carefully planned.”

The AIA responded to Young’s call. In 1971, the National Organization of Minority Architects was created. Over the next five years, scholarships and support programs were developed to encourage enrollment and integration of minority students in prestigious institutions. Government contracts began requiring minority participation. But by the mid-70s, things started to taper off. In 1974, Robert Traynham Coles was named deputy vice president for minority affairs for the AIA. In his 1989 essay, “Black Architects, an Endangered Species,” Coles recalled his responsibilities in the job.

“My task was not to bring more blacks into the profession, but to develop new programs to keep those who already were in practice.” The position was not renewed after Coles’ term came to a close in 1976.

In his essay, Coles goes on to cite numbers he said would have had Young rolling in his grave. In 1970, just after Young’s speech, there were approximately 50,000 architects in the United States, according to the Department of Labor. Of that number, 2 percent or approximately 1,000 architects were black. Fifteen years later, despite the efforts at inclusion during the early ’70s, the number of architects had doubled, but the percentage of black architects had stayed just about the same.

Almost 20 years after that, the landscape hasn’t changed much for African-American architects. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2016, just over 5 percent of those practicing in architecture and engineering occupations were African-American.

Wilkins says it’s hard for minorities to break into the field, and once they’re there, it’s harder for them to succeed than their white counterparts. Wilkins attributes that, to a degree, to the nature of the work. Like engineering and other high-skilled, service-based professions, architecture is a patron-based system. Clients of economic means seek out a licensed professional to work for them. But unlike engineering, the majority of clients seeking services in architecture are private companies, not public entities. Someone at one of those companies has to tap you as worthy of their time and money.

“More often than not, those folks are looking for folks who look like them,” says Wilkins.

Before worrying about success in the field, African-Americans have to get licensed in the first place. The J. Max Bond Center on Design for the Just City and the School of Architecture at the City College of New York released a 2015 report on the state of inclusion in architecture. According to the report, including professional schooling and additional requirements, it typically takes a minimum of 11 years to become a fully licensed architect. At the time of the report, a degree could cost students anywhere from $38,000 to $230,000. Plus, adds Wilkins, when there are only 2,000 licensed black architects in the country, there aren’t a lot of role models for young black students.

An annual homecoming celebration in Shankleville during the late '50s or early '60s 

Still more barriers to entry persist within academic institutions themselves. According to the National Architecture Accrediting Board’s 2015 report, 5 percent of students enrolled in the 152 architecture programs across the U.S. were African-American, a rate that’s been consistent since 2010. And not all of those students are graduating. According to the Design for the Just City report, there is a 75 percent retention rate for students overall in professional certification programs, but just over 50 percent for African-American students. The probability of a student encountering an African-American architecture faculty member is 1 in 174.

Those figures do not surprise Mueller at UT.

The new initiative is part of their solution, as is a continuing commitment to increasing the diversity of the student body. Ten years ago, the School of Architecture enrolled 15 African-American students in its undergraduate, master’s and doctoral programs. In 2016, they enrolled 27. There is still a long way to go: In 2012, one of the 85 School of Architecture faculty members at UT was black. Today there are three; only one of them is on a tenure track.

Wilkins stresses that to encourage young people to imagine architecture and design as career options, it’s important to focus not just on diversity in faculty, but also diversity in thought. If architecture and planning are framed as avenues to help people in low-income communities of color improve their communities, maybe people who grew up with those conditions will aspire to those roles. He gives the example of sustainable design. Using environmentally friendly building materials is rarely cast in light of its social impact. But Wilkins asks, what if environmental injustice were framed more often as affecting communities of color most acutely?

“If as a kid, I can see that this profession helps make that condition not happen, I might choose to do that,” he says.

Wilkins says society stands to lose a lot as a result of excluding the research, creativity and professional expertise of minorities. He points to music, fashion and other creative expressions.

“It is hard to argue that the contributions of people of color have not substantively transformed that artistic practice,” Wilkins says. “You can’t listen to music today and say that the African-American contribution has not substantively changed the way that music is consumed and perceived.” Wilkins says this begs the question of what we’ve been missing without an African-American presence in the design and planning fields.

The black feminist theorist bell hooks affirms the need for African-Americans to determine and transform their own space. In her essay “Black Vernacular: Architecture as Cultural Practice” she says that, regardless of financial means, designing one’s space, be it a shack or a porch or a yard, is a physical manifestation of one’s cultural values and freedom. She contrasts this autonomy with the onset of homogeneous state-funded public housing.

“No matter who you were in the shack, no matter if you owned the shack or not, there you could allow your needs and desires to articulate interior design,” writes hooks. “ … Standardized housing brought with it a sense that to be poor meant that one was powerless, unable to intervene in or transform one’s relationship to space.” What then, might public housing look like if it were designed by the people living there?

For his part, Wilkins is interested in extending the principles of hip-hop to architecture: the idea of appropriating materials, and repurposing them to fill gaps. He points to the turntable, which hip-hop transformed from a passive to an active instrument. He says this concept is familiar to people of color.

“Kitchen becomes bedroom becomes place where you pay your bills,” he says. “Vacant lot becomes playground becomes art installation because that’s all you have.” Wilkins wants to know what would happen if this creative reuse were applied to buildings.

“This would be an identifiable aesthetic that comes from a particularly cultural perspective of people of color,” he says. But, he adds, considering the patron-based system, someone would have to pay for it.

Wilkins is careful to add that it’s not fair to predict exactly what increased black contributions to design and planning would look like in order to justify inclusion. The whole idea is for institutions to commit to hire and value faculty who have different approaches.

“If you’re really interested in diversity in ideas then you have to be OK with it when they come with different ideas,” he says. “You have to allow them to work on those ideas and get tenure and be supported by the administration.” Wilkins says he sees departments give up too easily. “The response is ‘well we tried, but it didn’t work, so they must not want to be architects.’ So try again — and again.”

Planning Lessons in Shankleville

Andrea Roberts and the initiative at UT is a first try. And if whether or not an administration is taking diversity seriously is measured by how welcoming it is to new ideas within the field, internal support for Roberts’ research certainly bodes well. Outside of the academy, there are signs of responsiveness as well. In December, more than 150 people converged in Houston for a four-day conference dedicated to preserving communities of color. Roberts spoke about Freedom Colonies.

That validation is not a given for Roberts and her research. Lareatha Clay grew up going to Shankleville every weekend to stay with her grandmother. She’s a history buff, and most of the reason that the place has the recognition that it does. She worked doggedly to get the homestead on the original Shankleville property to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places, and she organizes an annual festival — the Purple Hull Pea Festival — to raise awareness about Shankleville.

“Sometimes it’s nothing more than a cemetery, but it’s a community feeling — people know that it’s there,” says Clay of Shankleville and other settlements. “It’s a sense of place and everybody knows what it is, even if it’s not on a map somewhere.”

Clay and Roberts told me about a recent presentation they made at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, where an audience member aggressively questioned the lack of official government within the Freedom Colonies.

“Basically like, ‘if you don’t have that structure then you’re not real,’” Clay says, describing the sentiment of the question. For Roberts, whose research often gets called into doubt, this was a particularly frustrating venue for such skepticism.

“We’re at the National Trust for Historic Preservation conference,” she exclaims, exasperated. “They’re supposed to be the most progressive, and understand.”

But, says Roberts, convincing people of the legitimacy of this research and these geographies, even side by side with someone who grew up there, is still an uphill battle.

“They don’t believe that we’re even able to define what a place is — we don’t have a right to do that. They decide, these are the parameters, these are the rules, these are the definitions. And when you challenge those fundamentals, that’s when you have a problem.”

Roberts’ postdoc ends in May. She’s hopeful that her new academic home will invite the provocation.

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Nina Feldman is an independent journalist focused on audio production. She worked as a regular contributor to NPR member station WWNO in New Orleans and as editor at American Routes. Her work has also appeared on Marketplace, Morning Edition and PRI's The World.

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