Skip to Content

Black Spaces Matter: Exploring the Aesthetics and Architectonics of an Abolitionist Neighborhood

Boston Architectural College
​December 1, 2017

Viewers could explore New Bedford’s abolitionist neighborhood at the Black Spaces Matter virtual-reality station.
Photo: Pamela Karimi; courtesy Boston Architectural College

The exhibition Black Spaces Matter showcased a wide range of media — historical maps to harpoon arrows, immersive 360-degree imagery to virtual reality — but the panel discussion associated with it opened up the conversation to larger issues concerning African American heritage, black neighborhoods, and the greater impact on the architecture and planning communities.

New Bedford was an abolitionist town in Massachusetts, and during its whaling boom, its architecture — Gothic Revival, Federal, Greek Revival, early Italianate homes, and cottages — reflected relative racial tolerance. Parts of the town’s black history empower the narratives of such towering figures as Frederick Douglass and Captain Paul Cuffe, who helped colonize Sierra Leone.

Jana Cephas, an assistant professor at the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Michigan, and one of the panelists, emphasized that preservation could be used as a tool within the planning and development process to affect a community’s growth. Embracing stories of black history and allowing these narratives to play a role in the crafting of space, she said, is a gesture that reclaims black legacy and can evoke a sense of pride for African Americans.

Throughout history, stories of African American heritage have been ignored and overlooked. The act of preserving black narratives allows for them to be recognized and acknowledged. It is these stories that can be put on a platform to educate, inspire, and encourage a community’s continued legacy.