Angel David Nieves, Associate Professor of History and Digital Humanities at San Diego State University, is the author of An Architecture of Education: African American Women Design the New South, which appeared in the University of Rochester Press’s Gender and Race in American History series this past June. The book recovers the lives and work of Jennie Dean and Elizabeth Evelyn Wright, African American women who played vital roles in founding and constructing industrial and normal schools in the post-Reconstruction South. In today’s blog post, Nieves shares the motivations behind the book and what he hopes readers will take from it.
Tell us a bit about the story you bring to life in An Architecture of Education, the story of African American women educators and reformers who designed and built schools in the post-Civil War South. What drew you to research and write on this period in American history, and specifically on Jennie Dean and Elizabeth Evelyn Wright?
I’m a person of color professionally trained in architecture, and even to this day it’s very unusual for persons of color to administer and teach in academia at the highest levels, much less to establish a stand-alone school or college. Dean and Wright are two African American women who, by virtue of their circumstances in the segregated, postbellum South, felt it imperative to hold enormous ambitions for their race. In addition, the fact that a woman, much less a woman of color, would also act as an architectural client (and a very participatory client on the edges of a kind of design practice themselves) during the high-water mark of segregation was incredibly unusual. This is an elite, privileged position in any circumstance. Exiled as African American men and women were from the mainstream of American civic life, they were required to found their own churches and school. Today, a couple generations removed from the Civil Rights legislation of mid-1960s, this is a continuing struggle, but there are laws and regulations on the books now that promote diversity and opportunity. So, also, it was an enormous imaginative leap for me to go back to the early years of the Progressive Era, and it has been a long, worthwhile journey, I believe.
Your narrative makes use of a particular set of terms to give context to these women’s work, among them “racial uplift,” “black nationalism,” “nation building.” How would you like readers to understand these terms and their importance to the story?
There was a perceived collective obligation to the race at that moment, as there has been through much of African American history. There was also a perception that African Americans would be exiled from mainstream American civic life for the foreseeable future—this while immigrant populations from Ireland and Germany were already being folded into what was understood as a “white American identity” and before the massive influx of persons from Southern Europe had even begun. African Americans had no recourse but to build their own societies, institutions, and ultimately their own stand-alone communities. At the same time, there was also a critical feminist and proto-feminist component narrative among African American women reformers of the time that became intertwined with that of the built environment of the post-Civil War South. This is something, that when I began my research, was in dire need of recovery.
Henry Louis Gates notes that your book is very much about the “crucial spatial history of the late nineteenth century.” In what way does space—location, environment, architecture—play a role in the narrative?
I think space and the spatial turn are incredibly helpful to our understanding of African American women’s agency during the Progressive Era and into the early twentieth century. African Americans found themselves in small districts and neighborhoods in the North, or perhaps absorbed into the households of the white ruling classes there (in separate quarters in attics and over stables). But in the overwhelmingly rural South, consider for a moment where the emerging African American nation was located: the Manassas Industrial School was founded on a blasted Civil War battlefield, elsewhere African American institutions were established in leftover bottomlands and farmlands. But Dean’s and Wright’s activities, along with those of other principals such as Booker T. Washington, resulted in colleges and schools that were beautifully and professionally designed and organized “academical villages” and cities—an otherwise utopian project situated in peripheralized space.
In your acknowledgments, you note your impending move to San Diego State University and your hope to continue your commitment there to “teaching, research, and social justice.” How do you see this book as reflecting those commitments, particularly to social justice? What is the relevance of the story of Jennie Dean and Elizabeth Evelyn Wright to social and political struggles in the United States today?
Much of my scholarship and activism have centered on hidden, erased, or neglected histories of marginalized peoples. Much like Dean and Wright and the minority institutions they served, today I am on the faculty of a designated Hispanic Serving Institution, San Diego State University, teaching a diverse population with a cultural and linguistic background very similar to my own. So, I’m finding interesting parallels with the subjects about whom I have written. But unlike the nation in exile of Dean and Wright, San Diego seems far from peripheralized. It is a fascinating globalized border space where the American empire defends its southwesternmost continental border and where human rights and dignity are both assaulted and defended daily, and San Diego both contends with and embraces complicated transnational immigration. Out of this frontier between Global North and Global South, something new is emerging, and I am privileged to both witness it and, perhaps make a difference, here at San Diego State.
This guest interview was conducted with Angel David Nieves, Associate Professor of History and Digital Humanities at San Diego State University, as part of University Press Week #TurnitUP History. An Architecture of Education: African American Women Design the New South is currently available in hardback (9781580469098).