Sunday, July 6, 2014

Panelists Explore Intangible Vernacular Spaces at the 2014 VAF Conference

Left to Right: Session Chair Amber Wiley with panelists Wendel White, Janet Sheridan and Paul Schopp
By Amber Wiley

The panel was entitled “Building at the Margins: African American Places in New Jersey and Beyond.” Panel participants included Janet Sheridan, discussing “Missing Marshalltown: Reconstructing Cultural Landscapes with GIS;” Paul Schopp on “Marginal Freedom: the Development of Antebellum African American Enclaves across South Jersey;” and Wendel White highlighting his photography project “Small Towns, Black Lives/ Schools for the Coloured.” The success in the panel was the combination of methodologies for exploring disappearing African American landscapes. The sites discussed were churches, schoolhouses, and homesteads. Through technological prowess, rigorous archival research, and visual re-presentations of material, we, as scholars of the built environment and interpreters of vanishing landscapes, begin to see, discuss, and re-evaluate these hidden histories in a more productive manner.

A few keywords that united all the papers were marginal, border, periphery, and last.  In direct contrast to those, however, were the words primary, nodal, only, and first.  The vanishing or vanished communities and sites that were discussed in the panel fit within the terms that seem, at first glance, in binary opposition.  However, the vestiges of time have changed the way we talk about communities that were once considered extremely important and exceptional.  These are communities that have felt the impact of emancipation, desegregation and urbanization.  They were born out of necessity, and then rendered ineffective.

This trend is not confined to South Jersey – it is a national trend. I was recently in Austin, Texas on an African American history and culture tour, and it was mainly an investigation of the invisible.  Some tour participants became agitated:  “Where are the buildings?!” they asked.  The Clarksville Historic District is a prime example of this condition.  In Oklahoma there exist ruins of small independent black towns that are remnants of what they used to be.  Examples include Rentiesville, home of John Hope Franklin, and Boley, site of the longest running black rodeo.

We take comfort in the visual aspects of preservation.  The tangible. This is why it is of utmost importance to investigate and engage new modes of inquiry and representation such as GIS and artistic photography. These are processes by which we make visible what has been lost, and re-inscribe meaning on the landscape in a very visual manner.  These creative re-presentations can lead to new ways of framing the conversation and engaging the public.  Artistic re-interpretations of the past are valid:  photography, murals, and interactive site development.  These methods promote learning and push inquiry into the future of vanished or vanishing landscapes.