Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
In the early 1970s, Sharon Sutton got an Ivy League education at Columbia University—spurred by insurgency—that helped her become a leading African-American architect today.
African-American Harvard students are holding their own graduation ceremony this year “to give voice to the voiceless,” as the Harvard Black Graduate Student Alliance president Michael Huggins told Boston.com. This is the kind of racial self-affirming and self-protecting practice that has been spreading across U.S. campuses in response to microaggressions and inflammatory racist incidents. These activities seem to acknowledge that these black students are graduating into workforces and societies that are far more unwelcoming than the ones that existed when they entered college.
This is not the first time that black students have started a wave of racial solidarity statements in response to bigotry in American institutions. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, black college students also staged a series of actions—some of them intentionally aggressive—in efforts to rewrite the rules of higher learning. In April 1968, black Columbia University students took over five campus buildings during a week-long rebellion. Among those buildings was Avery Hall, where Columbia’s School of Architecture was located. This building also became the locus of black students’ demands that the architectural and urban-planning fields restructure their relationships with communities of color, and that Columbia reexamine its own occupancy of Harlem.
This story is captured in the new book When Ivory Towers Were Black: A Story About Race in America’s Cities and Universities, written by Sharon E. Sutton, an African-American architect based in New York City.* Sutton is founding director emerita of the University of Washington’s Center for Environment Education and Design Studies, and is herself a direct beneficiary of the student revolts at Columbia in 1968. She was recruited to Columbia’s architecture school as part of the fulfillment of student demands that the university increase the number of non-white students on campus.
Not only did the school recruit more students of color, but it also brought in more black and Latino faculty, while augmenting its curriculum and programming to better serve the needs of its Harlem neighbors. The students and faculty members behind the reformation were also able to capitalize on a generous $10 million grant from the Ford Foundation, which they used to build an “Urban Center” that focused on minority affairs. Such victories were short-lived, though. The university pulled the plug on the new endeavors in the early 1970s, spurred by the onset of economic malaise coupled with the rising power of President Richard Nixon.
It’s what Sutton calls the “arc of insurgency,” and that this social justice trajectory mirrors what’s happening today under Trump was not lost on her as she wrote this book. In fact, Sutton’s original book proposal was nothing like the end product. She initially sought to write a book that merely tracked the lives of her black and Latino colleagues who made it through the architecture school—which, thanks to that 1968 student revolt, ended up graduating more African-American licensed architects than any other university in America, save for HBCUs.
But as Sutton did further research on this time period, she realized there was more to the story than just the biographical narratives of her fellow black classmates. She found that the story was really about the “institutional transformation” of Columbia University. And she also recognized that there were profound lessons that today’s black and Latino students of architecture, urban planning, and design could learn from what her peers went through decades ago.
CityLab spoke with Sutton about those lessons in a phone conversation early in May, just after she attended a funeral for one of her Columbia colleagues who she interviewed for her book. Here’s what she had to say:
Your colleague who just passed away, tell us what you learned about his life from the oral history he provided for your book.
Sharon E. Sutton: He continued throughout his life trying to put together projects that would help his family survive, but would also fit with his vision of what he thought an architect should be. That was very much part of the oral histories I collected from a number of people: the struggle of wanting to be successful, but also wanting to meet your social obligations. It very much reminded me of the difficulty for most of the black and Puerto Rican students who went to [Columbia’s architecture] school specifically dedicated to the idea that they were going to improve the ghetto. That was their motivation.
In your book, you discuss how Columbia graduated a significant number of black and Latino architects in the early 1970s, but then Nixon and economic depression hit and there was suddenly no work for them. It reminds me of the story of Soul City, North Carolina.
I graduated in 1973, which was the year of the oil embargo, but I had a job at an interior design firm. One of my Columbia professors hired me to work on the Avery Hall extension, but in 1974 I became unemployed. So, I had to start trying to figure out my life, and that was when I decided I would take the [architecture license] registration exams, which was not something we ever discussed in school.
Wait, getting licensed never came up in the school of architecture?
The well-to-do students had networks and were getting what I call “executive education” because they were going to work in their fathers’ firms. The black students were getting “worker bee education” because we had to go up the ranks. Getting licensed was something that was taken care of for white students in other ways. It wasn’t part of what Columbia did traditionally.
[Columbia professors] were thinking at a higher level of training executives, not training people for entry level positions in which you go in and work your three years then get your license. They were thinking beyond that. For us, it was just an impractical education because of the upper- and middle-class students who typically went to the school. Getting licensed was never mentioned.
So being licensed now and a leader in your field, along with many other African-American architects, what surprised you the most when doing your research on that early-1970s era?
The students’ chutzpah in undertaking the transformation actually reaffirmed what I have long felt—that the hope for social change lies with young people. What surprised me was the degree of racism that maintains the status quo, which is what caused me to reorient the book from individual career case studies to an analysis of institutional transformation. Even though I have experienced racism throughout my life, often I don’t have proof of why something untoward has happened. In these cases, I saw it in black and white.
What do you want young architects of color today to take away from this book?
The capacity of young people to bring about change—that’s the message, that you have the power and the imagination. Young people have not been socialized into the status quo, and so they are willing to take risks that other people don’t.
Unfortunately, we’ve had, since the last election, a lot of young people saying, “Well, it’s not the way I want it to be, so I’m just not going to participate,” rather than saying, “Here’s how I am going to participate.” That’s what was so impressive about the insurrection at the Columbia University campus, and the reaction to it. What happened in the school of architecture, how the curriculum was rewritten, how the planners re-envisioned how Columbia should relate to Harlem, how the black students tried to insert their presence and hold onto it in the school—all of that was intentional and [done] with great conviction. Young people today have the capacity to do that. If I would hope anything about my book, it’s that it would inspire that thinking of, let’s have a plan and let’s make it happen. Don’t just sit in the backseat complaining about the driver.
You wrote that Columbia’s administrative leaders found the architecture school’s adoption of a social justice platform “dangerous”? Why were they threatened by this?
They said that the university should be neutral. The urban planners were saying that society should be fair. That was a position, but the university wasn’t willing to take that position. The whole connection between the Urban Center, which was established to use this Ford money to develop projects in Harlem, was something the university did not ask for. Ford gave them the money. Nixon was after Ford for doing stuff like that. But once people were no longer scared that black people would burn down the nation, the whole pressure to solve the racial problem just dissipated.
Of the remaining Ford money, the administration said, OK, we have a million dollars left, we’re going to take that million and use it to create a theoretical urban center. But we’re not going to include these urban planners who have the idea that what urban studies should be about is making an urban environment where poor people can live in decent surroundings. That’s why it became imperative to tell the institutional story of how Columbia got swept into social justice, and then figured out a way to get out of it.
You talk in your book about your own mission of being an “intellectual freedom fighter.” What does that mean?
People ask me all the time: Why are you working in the university? Your work is so oriented toward the community. Why aren’t you working at a nonprofit? That was a personal struggle for me. Why should people committed to social justice and equity remain in the university when there is such a need for leadership in the community? Well, you have to have the intellectual story so we can put things into perspective.
The struggle that goes on in the streets with Black Lives Matter needs to be framed, and people are doing a spectacular job of framing the country’s history. There’s wonderful scholarship on the history of racism, but we also need more good scholarship interpreting what is happening now, on what is going on with climate change, and the role of the university and other institutions and foundations in counterbalancing the extraordinary power that corporations have been given. Plus, the university has resources and it has mechanisms for sharing those resources with the community. Fighting for freedom is not just marching. It’s also writing op-eds and books and teaching students.
What do you think about the design justice movement building among young architects and designers of color?
I think there are a lot of ways that designers, citymakers, and planners can get involved in the various issues that are going on. For me, a huge one is housing. There’s such a huge need globally to figure out how to shelter millions of people over the next half century. That’s an incredible challenge for designers to think about: the materials, the technologies, and transportation modes to begin to address the huge crisis in shelter. And that does affect primarily people of color, a lot of whom are black.
The whole police brutality thing is a little more difficult for me to get a handle on, because it’s not totally a spatial issue. It has a spatial dimension. Housing is not totally a spatial issue, either, but it is predominantly a spatial issue. Climate change—who are the people who are most threatened? How can designers offer strategies for poor communities that are going to be underwater or may have to deal with no water or no food? An aspect of design is how you eat, and how, with agribusiness, there are ways that designers can figure out how to help local communities get back control of their food. These are basic things: food, water, and housing. They’re huge design issues that affect poor people of color, but ultimately everybody would benefit.
*CORRECTION: Sutton was originally listed as based in Seattle.