Students engage with black ‘memory workers’ in New York

An interdisciplinary seminar in the fall semester took students from Ithaca to New York to explore African-American heritage sites and the people whose work continues that history.

For Nia Whitmal, PhD student in anthropology, the course, “Black Memory Workers and Their Spatial Practices: Explorations of African-American Heritage Spaces in New York City,” allowed him to see the connections between many of his interests. She also had the chance to meet and film Michael Henry Adams, a historic curator from Harlem, and to visit historic brownstones in Brooklyn and Harlem.

“That aspect of the trip really showed how interdisciplinary and layered the course is,” Whitmal said. “Architecture was clearly in the foreground, but my background in anthropology was always relevant. So did textile and fiber design, African American literature, and in this case, interior design, genealogy, and real estate development.

The four-credit seminar was taught by Peter Robinson ’98, visiting critic at the College of Architecture, Art and Planning; and Rich Richardson, Professor of African Studies at the College of Arts and Sciences. This is the third phase of Cornell’s Mellon Collaborative Studies in Architecture, Urbanism, and the Humanities.

“A black memory worker is a person who is embedded in the culture, so it’s not just their job to preserve their community, it’s a life practice,” Robinson said, citing the example of Roberta Washington, founding director of Roberta Washington Architects, whose brownstone became the home for documents related to the history of black architecture.

The course built on Robinson’s work with My Brother’s Keeper Alliance high school students at Medgar Evers College Preparatory School in Brooklyn. High school students spent six weeks last summer at Brownsville Heritage House (BHH), in conjunction with BlackSpace Urbanist Collective, learning about the architecture and urban design/planning profession and creating a strategy report of design for suggested improvements.

“Design strategy taught me to plan effectively by imagining the most, then being able to organize the most relevant information to use,” said Elisha Amadasu, senior at Medgar Evers. “It’s yet another helpful way to look at life planning.”

Amadasu and other high school students visited Cornell earlier this semester to share their work before Cornell students hit the town for a week. George Patterson, senior manager of My Brother’s Keeper in New York, also visited Cornell to see the student presentations.

“I had the opportunity to see President Obama’s vision of my brother’s keeper come to fruition in a major way,” he said. “To quote one of the teachers who attended the presentation, ‘They owned the room!’ This bridge of opportunity would not have been possible without the tutelage of Peter Robinson who introduced the students to architecture and urban design and assembled a team of Cornell graduate students and mentors to work with the students on this project. This was a major investment in our young academics, and I couldn’t be happier with the result.

During their trip to New York, Cornell students explored BHH; the African Burial Ground National Monument with Nicole Hollant-Denis ’89, reference architect; the conservation area of ​​the Museum of Modern Art; and various other historic churches, sites and brownstones. They also met many black memory workers and architects and participated in a workshop at the Gensler Family AAP NYC Center, where Hollant-Denis presented his work.

After their visit to the city, Cornell students chose final community engagement projects centered on one of the sites or projects they had visited.

“All of the students created concrete, tangible deliverables,” Richardson said. “It was such a special multi-layered experience. I can’t remember another class where students had the opportunity to experience the extent of the connections they were able to make this semester.”

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