Interviewee: Mabel O. Wilson, Professor of Architecture at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture Planning and Preservation, co-director of Global Africa Lab, and a faculty fellow at the Institute for Research in African American Studies
Interviewer(s): Deborah E. McDowell; James Perla
Interview Recordist: Derrick Clements
Interview date: 2018-12-11
Interview Summary: Interview with Mabel O. Wilson, Professor of Architecture at Columbia University. In this interview, Professor Wilson discusses Thomas Jefferson’s prison drawing and his role in the birth of the modern day prison.
Keywords: Prison, Benjamin Henry Latrobe, solitary confinement, debtor cells, segregation, citizenship
Transcription: Hahna Cho
Mabel Wilson: Hi, it’s Mabel Wilson. How are you?
James Perla: Hi, Professor Wilson. I’m wonderful.
JP: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us. Okay, actually as it turns out Deborah had a very unexpected emergency come up this morning. And so unfortunately, she sends her… her regards that she’s unable to come. She might come in slightly late, but she may [0:30] miss it entirely, especially given the fact that we’re starting slightly early. So, she apologizes very deeply for that.
MW: Okay, not a problem. So, I’m here with Derrick.
MW: He’s the recordist.
JP: And he’s all set. He should he should be rolling over there.
MW: There is a gigantic mic, actually, on my [laughter] face.
JP: Wonderful. Well, no, no need to be… to be nervous. I’m sure your adept at this by now, right? [1:00]
Thomas Jefferson at the Birth of the Modern Prison
JP: Yeah. So, we, you know, as I said in the email we’re working on this series about Thomas Jefferson and the series is actually for UVA’s Bicentennial. So, the 200 Year celebration. But our series is really trying to, you know, to try to “update Jefferson” actually as one of our interviewees said for our times. Update Jefferson for our times. And so, you know part of that is digging into some of the lesser-known things about his history even here, [1:30] you know, even with Jefferson Scholars, even with people who talk about him every single day. And so the episode we’re working on right now is about Thomas Jefferson at the birth of the modern prison. And so the first maybe we can start by you know, how appropriate is that even as a way of organizing or titling the chapter, you know, to what extent was Jefferson at the birth of the modern prison?
MW: [2:00] In terms of Jefferson being at the birth of the modern prison, I am not an expert on histories of incarceration or even prison. So, from my perspective, it’s hard to say exactly where to situate Jefferson in that regard other than from what I know about looking at his architecture is to understand that along with executive functions, along [2:30] with legislative functions, and also judicial functions, particularly when he and others were conceptualizing the organization of the state of Virginia’s governmental framework, that a prison was considered an essential part of that. So, clearly he’s thinking about that as a site to house those who break the law or who are considered, you know, outside of, you know, [3:00] lawful activities that organized, you know, this new sort of democratic republic. But how others were thinking about that, how, you know, I’m not necessarily an expert in that but I think it’s fascinating that, you know, prison is often listed as part of the architectural designs necessary for a functioning state. First, at the state level of Virginia and I know Latrobe, Benjamin Henry Latrobe, [3:30] who become he’s an Englishman who comes over and becomes an architect does build a penitentiary in Richmond and my understanding it was somewhat following earlier designs of Jefferson, which I believe have now been lost.
JP: Yes, the Virginia… I think you’re referring to the Virginia State Penitentiary. Which just in the coincidence of timing, I mean just as you’re starting out — and this is this is wonderful — but even in the coincidence of timing, you know, like the same year Jefferson publishes [4:00] the Declaration, he starts corresponding with people about reforming the criminal codes in Virginia. And so the fact that Jefferson is seen as sort of a progressive reformer, wanting to sort of abolish corporal punishment and implement sort of the more human, as he thought of it, solitary confinement. So, even just that, that sort of coincidence that of timing that at the birth of the nation at the birth of Virginia, punishment is kind of crucial [4:30] to freedom. I wonder if you can meditate on that a bit.
MW: Yeah. No, I didn’t. Yeah, I mean not knowing fully Jefferson’s philosophy on prisons and, you know, it would certainly correspond with what I discovered in looking at the small jail that he designed later in life that there was this solitary confinement cell. And that he had actually looked at various incarceration [5:00] prison reforms in France around the role of solitary confinement of also, you know, drawing from English models. So, thinking about all right, well, how do those reforms actually translate into spatial relationships? And then built form and then, you know, how does it design? Which is, you know, the architect’s problem. That seems to make sense. Also in terms of, you know, him imagining [5:30] who… what constitutes a citizen and, you know, what is the kind of moral character necessary for citizenship and participation? So, you know, sort of trying to understand the role of justice, criminal justice, and incarceration in producing that effect seems to make sense. And you can kind of see it in this small design for this jail. [6:00]
The Prison as a Racialized and Dehumanizing Space
JP: Excellent. That’s, that sets us up perfectly I want to get into both of those things perhaps in order. So, first talking about the design itself and then going a little bit more into what you just mentioned about citizenship. So, I guess, you know, the big, big picture and I know… I understand at least that you are currently working on a book on this so I understand if this question is a little bit reductive, but sort of the big picture in terms of [6:30] what’s going on sort of at this historical moment when Jefferson starts working on these designs. And partly the question is how slavery sort of influences the architecture of early America? So, maybe just helping us a little bit to set the context so that we can get into some of Jefferson’s design itself.
MW: My current project [7:00] is a book-length manuscript called Building Race and Nation and so it looks at both the formation of a modern understanding of race. So, the emergence of, you know, sort of from Enlightenment ideas of racial difference to clearly a kind of more institutionalized scientific racism by the mid-nineteenth century, but also looking at the parallel of the rise of the nation state in the form of the United States. [7:30] But also the key word in the title is also building. So, my intent is to look at American civic architecture and its formation as a lens to understand the formation of nation formation, of race particularly whiteness in relationship to Native Americans and enslaved Africans. And so for me, you know, sort of looking looking at the built form and what that in fact organizes materially around questions of labor, [8:00] land, property, spatially, and also symbolically can be quite powerful. So, as I have been going through archives I just came across that prison. I think it’s in the Massachusetts Historical Society and I just thought, “Oh, this is fascinating.” And so I just, you know, I put the file, the jpeg aside and just, you know, ended up writing something on… for the Istanbul Biennial online publication [8:30] on e-flux around “Are we still human?” And my point is that some of us have never actually been human. So, looking at how incarceration dehumanized the bodies of others. And so, when I started to look at that particular drawing I noticed that you had labeled… each of the six cells are labeled: the two front cells are for “male and female white debtors,” the middle and the back cell [9:00] are for “male and female criminals,” and then the other two sides are “male and female negro slaves.” So, the racial labeling of those cells I thought were quite interesting. And then to think about all right, well, what was your… how were you registered within the law at that moment? And clearly the enslaved were property so they weren’t even proper political subjects [9:30] and freed blacks, as I write in the essay, you know, pose this problematic character because how could you be free and also be black? And so the organization of those cells started to sort of point to clearly questions around who had, you know, who was given kind of political rights and agency.
JP: Sure. Yeah and I want to get… dive into that slightly a little bit more deeply. But for people who may [10:00] not have seen this drawing before because not many have… Could you just describe it just for us?
Jefferson's Prison Drawing
MW: The drawing is in the collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society as part of collections of various drawings by Thomas Jefferson. It was done, I don’t know, I can’t remember the exact date. Around 1816 something or 20. And it [10:30] was for a county jail. So, it was not a penitentiary, it wasn’t a prison, but a local jail. They believed it was in fact, based on the design, in part built. And that was only recently recognized but there are six cells with a hallway down the middle. And each of the six cells are labeled according to whatever category you are: [11:00] debtor, criminal, or slave. And then in the middle in the back is a solitary confinement cell. So, that shows the sort of presence of some form of… belief in political reform within the design of the prison.
JP: Excellent, and for people who are familiar with Jefferson’s many designs, does it recall anything in particular in your mind? As a speaking sort of in terms of the aesthetic [11:30] purpose?
MW: The relationship of the design… [throat clearing] Sorry, the relationship of the design to other Jefferson’s projects… it’s probably more in the vein of the utilitarian sketches that he makes probably for barns or, you know, sort of other outbuildings that are [12:00] part of his, for example, plantations, various plantations that he owns. This does clearly have a civic dimension to it. So, it’s more orderly and organized, but in the design, if I recall correctly, in some of the research that I was able to find, particularly in correspondence, is he actually does give: “This amount of bricks will be required. This is the number of nails. This is…” So, he thinks about it in a very kind of rational, [12:30] pragmatic sense of okay, this is what you will need to construct one of these. And I do think that within Jefferson’s sense of, let’s say, for the first architect, even though he was not formally trained to someone like [Benjamin Henry] Latrobe or [Charles] Bullfinch or William Thornton or some of the other architects that are coming from elsewhere from France or England, you know, who end up working in the United States, [13:00] he does see his role as someone who can bring an aesthetic sensibility around what would constitute tasteful architecture. So, that architecture is an essential component to the rise of an American culture. So, UVA is a perfect example of that that each of the pavilions were essentially to be a lesson on proportions and scales of Palladian architecture or neoclassical architecture [13:30]. And so, you know, these buildings were to have a kind of didactic purpose. So, no doubt he would be imagining this as a kind of prototype that might be replicated elsewhere.
Enlightenment Influences on Race and Architecture
JP: Right and and picking up on that. I mean, you know, in his correspondence too he notes that the aesthetic function should be a certain way of a prison that, you know, prisons shouldn’t necessarily be beautiful, right? And so, maybe sort of contrasting those too a bit that, you know, [14:00] the prison in compared to UVA’s Lawn. I know some people have remarked that on the surface level just the sort of bird’s eye view is sort of schematically similar to UVA’s Lawn. In terms of just it being sort of a rectangle with something at the top: the solitary confinement cell or the Rotunda. Your thoughts?
MW: The comparison between [14:30] the jail and UVA is a very fascinating. I mean, I never thought about that as a point of comparison, but I do think that Jefferson as an enlightened, you know, just as a product of the Enlightenment, which was obsessed with orderliness of everything having a place, everything knowing where things could… should be and could be [15:00] located. A kind of taxonomic, you know, obsession that is also comparative. The order and organization of the jail could also be seen as in a sort of parallel to how he would organize government or how he would organize the plan of UVA. So, there is a certain belief in the power of order that is critical and at that sort of speaks to also the rise of utilitarianism and rationalism [15:30] as well at that moment people like [Jeremy] Bentham and others who, certainly by the 1820s are clearly saying “Okay, how do we produce a kind of more rationalized world?” Though, Jefferson is clearly a product of an earlier moment. You know, these new institutions that are arising in a post-revolutionary moment both in France and in the United States around modern European governmental forms [16:00] clearly show that these new spaces are also going to organize a modern society and also a modern political subject as well. And as well as produce the ‘outside.’ I mean those who do not fit within that order but who are nonetheless necessary whether it’s for their land as indigenous populations or their labor as the enslaved do become a part of the system.
JP: Right and I wonder if you can talk just a little bit more about that like how specifically [16:30] does something like architecture produce that sort of paradoxical dynamic between socialization or sort of patriotism? That might not be the right word but also exclusion, right? I wonder if you can sort of meditate like on a specific example perhaps before we dive into the prison itself?
MW: In regards to the role of architecture and how it’s reflective of this [17:00] moment around Enlightenment ideas, liberalism. For example, I would say part of kind of what I’m interested in my own work is to understand that the subject of the architect, like the subject of the citizen, like the subject of the merchant, the landowner, are all sort of modern subjects that are dependent on certain [17:30], you know, ideas of abstraction but also ideas of self-possession and self-determination. And architecture, which is a specifically European way of building, of conceptualizing building and developing methods of construction because people build all around the world and all different kinds of ways through many different processes, but architecture [18:00] is a specifically European one that does come out of the rise of humanism and certainly, you know, within the Enlightenment it becomes a kind of engine to basically build the modern state, the modern nation. And so I think it’s just critical to understand that the character — Jefferson’s an architect but he’s also a kind of more traditional gentleman [18:30], polymath architect. Benjamin Latrobe is an architect. He’s trained as an architect. So, by the 19th century, you actually have educational institutions that are much more predominantly training architects to do the work of a now secular state as opposed to architects who in the 18th century or prior to that were trying to either work for the state or work for the monarchy. And so, there’s a sort of different literal subjectivity of the architect as professional [19:00] which you see by the mid-nineteenth century, you know, that Jefferson’s also on the cusp of. And so that architecture becomes a kind of engine and we see this most clearly by the end of the 19th century with the rise of skyscrapers, planning, transportation hubs, train stations, museums… I mean these all start to organize, you know, we now call “modern society.” But as part of that, you know, that’s all in the metropol you have the colony and so [19:30] that you also have warehouses, plantation houses, docks, you have, you know, the outbuildings that aren’t necessarily designed by architects, but our buildings that are a part of this larger sort of apparatus that is, you know, sort of extracting wealth and building wealth.
Implicit Levels of Inclusion and Exclusion Within Prison Designs
JP: Right, right. And so, that’s all wonderful. Thank you so much for that. This really helps to provide that context. And so, sort of diving in then to those may be more complicated [20:00] exclusions, right? The role of the prison particularly for Jefferson. I wonder if you can sort of return to that drawing and talk a little bit about Jefferson’s system to classify people inside the prison so we know that, you know, he organized the different sort of cells according to that system as you described. But what surprised you, if anything, about the way that he was classifying people [20:30] and what does that tell us about these sort of the double-edged sword of that citizenship… inclusion and exclusion?
MW: Well, what I found fascinating about Jefferson’s organization, and this is was, you know, sort of speculative on my part when I wrote the essay, was the curious position of the debtor, the two debtor cells in the front. And debtors typically being people who may have had means, who have gone into debt, but also have the means [21:00] to get out of debt. And certainly, as we know, Thomas Jefferson lived well beyond his means and when he died was deeply in debt so much so, you know, they sold off all, you know, all of the enslaved that he owned in order to pay off those debts. So, the fact that those were the two front cells, which would have been easily accessible to the public people coming in to visit those who might be in those two cells sort of speaks to a certain class hierarchy, [21:30] clearly. And then the other two that were labeled “white criminal” to the left side. So, the back and the middle cells spoke to, you know, those who might have engaged in certain criminal activity. Again, probably classed. These might have been people who are indentured or former indentured whites, those who would have been Irish, who, you know, within the emergence of a racial [22:00] consciousness were also racialized as inferior, for example to the English. You know, it starts to speak about, you know, who has access at least to some form of redemption within the criminal system. Even if you’re, you know, incarcerated at that moment particularly around women and the ways in which women might be, you know, for crimes be able to gain, [22:30] you know, certain access to religious institutions and reform through that. But then on the right side, there are the two cells for “negro slave men and women” and clearly enslavement and blackness were associated. And that’s most likely… these might have been for runaway slaves, my speculation. Or for slave coffles that were at that period moving westward [23:00] into, you know, what was the Louisiana Purchase for, you know, the expansion of land acquisition by people who are starting to farm for cotton. So, the larger cotton plantations of the deep South. So, speculatively, I started to imagine that that’s what those cells might have been for and also for freed blacks who, you know, might have broken local laws, even though at that point, you know, they weren’t even supposed to be living in Virginia, you know, once you were free, I believe, [23:30] were supposed to leave or move out within one year, but, you know, given family histories, local relationships many people just stayed rather than leave.
Private versus Public Punishment
JP: Right. And so, you’re what you’re describing here is the prison drawing and I take it there’s no… Just to sort of underline your point, that there… In this society there was no such thing as black debtors, which is why you have the cells separated by race [24:00] as well as class and gender as you described. Is that fair to say? And can you sort of explain why that might be a little bit more?
MW: Um, yeah that I mean, I can’t say since I don’t have the historical evidence to essentially… The archival material to say that there were no black debtors, but I would imagine the, you know, given the various prohibitions on the ability of blacks to move freely even if you were free to own anything, [24:30] I would argue that ownership particularly of property was something that characterized and guaranteed whiteness. So, that property ownership was always already white in relationship to Native Americans and Africans. So, already the law was working consistently particularly after the Revolution when there was a large number of people who actually… Well, a fair number of people [25:00] who manumitted slaves they recognized that, you know, to proclaim certain ideas of freedom while owning slaves was hypocritical. But also slaves had value, so people held onto them and they were fearful of the presence of freed slaves particularly around enslaved people because that then sort of becomes a model of, you know, and of what you’re not, right? So, the proximity of those. So, there was often an attempt to create laws that kept freed blacks [25:30] as far away from, you know, regions that had slaves. So, you know, sort of that, you know, the laws… the codifications of certain ideas around who could or could not own property, you know, meant that yeah, you couldn’t get you couldn’t get loans, you couldn’t, you know, have banknotes, you couldn’t… you were very limited in terms of [26:00] access to finance. And also just having… being able to even appear in court and have a voice, to be a witness for someone in a court case. I mean they were just all kinds of prohibitions around that.
JP: And in your article you had this wonderful meditation on the form of punishment as it related to enslaved peoples as being something that was sort of private. Whereas the function of a civic space, like a prison, to be a public form [26:30] of punishment. That was also a certain socializing function. Like freed enslaved peoples, if I’m understanding it properly from your article, that freed enslaved… freed black people formerly enslaved had to be punished publicly because enslaved peoples… their masters would enact, exact that punishment privately. If that’s… if I’m understanding the point in your article correctly. And I’ll also just point out that as we’re talking [27:00] Deborah has finally, she finally made it. So, I’m happy to say that unfortunately, you know, she was unable to get the beginning of our conversation but we’re really glad to have her here listening along.
MW: Hi, Deborah. How are you?
Deborah McDowell: Hi there. How are you?
MW: I’m well, thank you.
DMcD: Thank you so much for doing this.
MW: Yeah, my pleasure.
DMcD: Yes. I had a 10:15 doctor’s appointment and by 11:40 I had not yet seen the doctor. [27:30]
MW: Oh, no.
DMcD: But, I’m now back. I raced back.
MW: Well, glad you could make for part of it. Ah, so in reference to the question around punishment. And I, with a caveat, I’m not a special… have any fully deep understanding around the legal codes of how both freed and enslaved blacks were dealt with, particularly around Virginia law, [28:00] but my cursory understanding to some degree was to constantly allow because the enslaved were understood as property, as chattel, that the right of punishment was often left under the purview of the owner. Although, I mean, I can’t say specifically whether they were laws that, you know said, well, you can’t do this or this or this to your enslaved [28:30] property. And so, that made it more a private matter of ownership rather than something that was determined directly by law which in the case of the punishment of white citizens, for example, you know, all of that was public, civic, determined by law and, you know, within the court of law for the citizen. The freed blacks were [29:00] a little bit murkier in terms of their position, but the constant pressure was to make sure that they were regulated by law and punished severely. But often not having various sort of rights to say that I have been cheated or that was unfair or that was unlawful which often made freed blacks quite vulnerable, you know, for example vulnerable so much that they could be [29:30] re-enslaved, for example.
JP: Excellent. Did you?
The Legacy of a System Designed with Inequalities
DMcD: Yes, I think I’ll take up… I gather you’ve worked through these? Okay. All right. Well, what if anything does this history tell us about prisons today? Obviously, we don’t want to make any simplistic associations. But in all of the talk about Jeffersonian legacies in general even [30:00] a term that Jeffersonian scholars use quite regularly… I wonder if it’s a possibility or what room do we have given this history to talk about prisons today at the level of design? Are there any legacies of Jeffersonian or Jefferson’s designs?
MW: [30:30] Well, the legacy for me in Jefferson’s design of the prison and sort of my interest in sort of thinking about that small, I mean, this very tiny building. There’s just not much about it. There’s not much in his letters about the prison itself, but just looking at how the cells were labeled and how they were organized. It spoke to how not only the law dehumanized [31:00] the enslaved and anyone who is black at that moment, but that somehow the architecture was reflective of that organization and of that somehow dehumanization within the law itself.
DMcD: Can you say more about that?
MW: Well, I would say that it’s more in [31:30] how the cells had been labeled and there was no record that I know of that could say specifically how people were treated within the prison itself so, you know, this is all speculation. But for me, the design itself, the drawing itself, and the way in which it was labeled spoke to that the law was not about [32:00] everyone being treated equally that there were already inequalities designed into the system.
Wrestling with Jefferson's Paradoxes at UVA
DMcD: Yes. Alright that makes perfect sense. So, it’s a design… a segregated design and that segregation obviously doesn’t originate with Jefferson but remains with us to this very moment, even if what remains is at some physical level invisible, [32:30] those inequalities and forms of segregation based on race remain very much with us today. We’ve been asking all of our interviewees, especially those who have a connection to UVA the following question, which you can find any point of access you’d like. What does Jefferson’s history mean to you as a former [33:00] UVA student? Does it figure in anything you teach your students? If so, how so?
MW: As a graduate of UVA and specifically the School of Architecture where, you know, Jefferson is to some extent, or certainly when I was a student, was God on pedestal. [33:30] He was always for me a very complex and I always read him as paradoxical figure. I was always fascinated by that paradox and how little that registered in the consistent elevation of his character and his accomplishments. And so, [34:00] for years I’ve written and research, you know, bits and pieces around, you know, those inherent paradoxes. And so, for my current project, Building Race and Nation, Jefferson is the perfect protagonist as Founding Father, slaveholder, some would argue rapist, architect, educator. I mean he embodies sort of all of these sort of figures in one person [34:30] and so it really allows me to understand if he is a kind of quintessential founding father, to what degree is all of this baked into the formation of the nation and all of its institutions and whether those institutions are articulated through law or through brick, marble, and glass.
Negro Building and Building Race and Nation
DMcD: Aha. So, if I could follow up there [35:00] this fascinating title, Building Race and Nation, obviously it seems as if only in the title to be a logical second project leading from Negro Building. So, what’s the relation between… what insights from Negro Building then led you to this new project Building Race and Nation? And will you give us a sneak peek [35:30] beyond what you’ve just stated? What are the arguments you want to make?
MW: Building Race and Nation, the subtitle is like “slavery and dispossession’s influence on early American civic architecture,” although I’m working on the subtitle, which is a little wordy at this point… Is what I am terming the “prequel” to my book Negro Building [36:00] which was an examination of World’s Fairs and African-American participation in those public forums as a way of sort of making claims to citizenship and rights to power that were supposed to have been guaranteed after emancipation with constitutional amendments but clearly with Jim Crow segregation, that was not. And so, it’s interesting under Jim Crow segregation the ways in which those spaces [36:30] — because they were temporary — were constantly being used to sort of debate at all different levels what was blackness? What was black history? But also, what was the future of black peoples in the United States? However, for that project race and nation were always just a given fully-formed, you know, at the turn of the 20th century, you know, at post-reconstruction and onward understanding what those terms were and I was interested in what [37:00] were the histories of that concept? And in, particular one of the buildings, which is a pavilion that I look at in Negro Building which is the Temple of Beauty which was commissioned by W.E.B. DuBois and it’s got this weird Egyptian aesthetic and it’s the backdrop for Starve Ethiopia and it’s literally a kind of pan-African architecture. And so, he’s clearly speaking back and trying to say, [37:30] “Okay, so this is what a black architecture might be in relationship to an American architecture?” And I kept thinking, “Well, why in American architecture do we even take that for granted? Is it already racialized?” And so that sort of led me to think about, “Well, is it?” And is DuBois actually speaking directly to Jefferson? Dubois talks about “the veil,” Jefferson speaks to “a veil of monotony” in Notes on the State of Virginia. So, I’m sort of arguing my introduction [38:00] that that’s actually a very strong connection that Jefferson just never saw black people as having the capacity or aptitude to become citizens in the US which is why he was an advocate for emancipation but also the return of black people back to Africa. Even though many people had been… their families had been in the US for centuries, they were of mixed race whether it was indigenous or European and [38:30], you know, what would constitute africanness in that context would have been very complicated. But we end up with Liberia and then also Sierra Leone so that actually does come into fruition. So, that project is really an exploration of the question of nationalism and race and using American civic architecture as a lens to understand that formation.
DMcD: Aha and fascinating. How far along are you? [39:00]
MW: I am… I have two chapters completed. Hopefully we’ll have a manuscript by August of three more chapters. The first chapter specifically on the Virginia State House, which I argue is a model for the U.S. Capitol and for the White House. But even the Virginia State House, it’s a real estate scheme, it’s, you know, everything that [39:30] happens there is exactly the roadmap for how Washington D.C. was chosen, developed, literally clearing the land, mapped, lot sold off, and developed by George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and a various bunch of other investors.
JP: That’s amazing.
DMcD: Yes, what other what other buildings will figure?
MW: Other key buildings [40:00]… Chapter one is on the Virginia State House, chapter 2 is on the design of, well, the laying out of Washington DC. So, it’s about property and surveying and whiteness. Chapter 3 examines Washington D.C., the construction of the White House, and the U.S. Capitol, but also trying to understand a kind of cartography of slavery. You know, where were slaves? [40:30] How did they live? What was the relationship to those people who were politicians, merchants, and others within the city? Chapter 4 looks at the Pennsylvania Abolitionist Society and Philadelphia that was burned down and American Colonization Societies. So, how do we contend with questions of emancipation? And what were the architectures or cartographies and sites of that? And then the last chapter is on the Smithsonian which was a specific [41:00] question around what style constituted an American civic architecture? Which chose a very Northern European aesthetic in the Romanesque and also the project of the Smithsonian as a now scientific but also scientific racial project to claim and understand America and primitivize Native Americans. So, throughout the project is an exploration of the formation of white identity and the relationship to Native American dispossession and black enslavement. [41:30]
Who Builds the Buildings?
DMcD: Wonderful. What are your thoughts when the African American Museum?
MW: Oh, wow, I wrote a book on that. You know, I think the African American Museum is, you know, a very important project. I think Lonnie Bunch, Kinshasa Conwill and all [42:00] those people who really understood what was at stake at putting a building on the National Mall were really smart and strategic around that process and what it meant. And it was clearly part of a hundred year struggle and so my book began with the past accounts for that struggle, but also sort of talks about the design of the building and how that relates to the sort of project of telling the history of blacks in the Americas. [42:30]
JP: I wonder maybe that, it sort of, we want to be mindful of your time to concluding sort of questions. Your project and I know it’s a collaborative venture about Who Builds Your Architecture? And I know not everything has to be about Jefferson but to what extent… Does Jefferson inform that? Or did being at UVA perhaps thinking about who builds, you know, the places that we occupy? You know, again, not everything has to be Jefferson he doesn’t have to [43:00] originate projects and I know it’s collaborative, but I wonder if you can maybe think about that a bit or comment on that, on that more of a sort of public facing work.
MW: The Who Builds Your Architecture project which looks at the contemporary questions of the exploitation of construction labor, particularly migrant labor, around the world, which includes the United States, certainly speaks to my interest in questions of labor which in particular like, “who builds the buildings?” [43:30] often gets left out because the architects are often seen as the intellectual labor, the creative worker, the creative capital, so to speak, behind buildings. But the construction that translates the labor, that translates that actually into built form is often written out of that equation. So, that’s very much a part of my interest in the ways in which for example enslaved labor was being used at… to build the Virginia State House, [44:00] but that was also part of the reason I became part of the design team for the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers at UVA was I have been doing this research and it just sort of dovetailed perfectly with questions and things that I was interested in my own scholarly research versus, you know, work that I do as a designer.
JP: Sure, and I guess for archival reasons to do you want to say a few words on the Memorial to Enslaved Labor? In light of the project that sort of we’re doing [44:30] as well about Jefferson?
MW: Well, the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers which I’m part of a team of artists and architects and landscape architect, and who’ve been working with a great group of the President’s Commission for Slavery at the University which includes faculty, staff, students, community members, [45:00] to sort of remember the enslaved men, women, and children who not only labored to build UVA from day one, but also maintained the buildings and the lives of the faculty and the students and their families that lived at the Academical Village until 1865. And they were emancipated and some of whom continue to work there [45:30] until their deaths. So, that project is an effort to commemorate that history. And I think for many of us it’s been a project of humanizing the enslaved, many of whom we have no names, no records of what they did, but only a speculation or projection of, you know, the numbers of people who were actually here at UVA working.
The Danger in American Exceptionalism
JP: [46:00] Wonderful. Any final thoughts? I know you’ve been very generous with your time and this has been a wonderful conversation as well. I wonder if you have any sort of final thoughts before we let you go?
MW: Yeah, I mean, I would only add that the question around the question of the legacy of Jefferson. I think the United States as a people have a history of mythologizing our place in the world. We are [46:30] an exceptional people. We are “the city on a hill.” And I think that that mythologizing of our exceptionalism has always put blinders on to the reality of the viciousness and violence that was a part of nation building… of the colonial project of nation building in this country. And I think our failure to reckon with that legacy has produced and continues to maintain the injustice and the inequality [47:00] in the United States and abroad, you know, people look at us as a kind of model. And I think the paradox of Jefferson speaks to that and we have to reckon with, you know, his legacy and talk about it and, if necessary, even monumentalize it so that there is a reminder that we are all humans and we fail as much if not more so than we succeed.
DMcD: Wonderful. That is a [47:30] fantastic place on which to end the interview.
JP: And we will keep you up-to-date on how this project progresses but we want to just thank you again for your time and for being with us today.
MW: Sure. Yeah. Good luck with everything.
DMcD: Good luck to you. Okay, bye-bye.
JP: Thanks so much.
MW: All right. Bye.