Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
Landscape designer Walter Hood talks about his vision for the International African American Museum, which is scheduled to open in Charleston, South Carolina next year.
When visiting Sullivan’s Island off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina, a few years ago, designer Walter Hood came across an interesting pattern or tapestry of some sort in a small museum there. As he looked closer, he realized that it wasn’t a pattern: It was the outlines of bodies lined up next to each other.
He was looking at the Brooks Map, the document that shows how enslaved Africans were packed into the bottom of slave ships. Sullivan’s Island was a slave ship hub; it was where slave traders stopped before arriving at Gadsden’s Wharf in Charleston, the site where almost half of enslaved Africans entered the country via these ships.
Gadsden’s Wharf is also the site of the future International African American Museum, which breaks ground next year, and that Hood is helping design. Not to be confused with the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in D.C., the IAAM is a project the city of Charleston is pursuing to “re-center South Carolina’s place in global history” in terms of its role in the international slave trade and the Civil War. Henry Cobb of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners approached Hood, a landscape architecture and design professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and founder of Hood Design Studio, to help lead design efforts for this project.
The outline of enslaved bodies in the Brooks Map left such an impression on Hood that he made it part of the museum’s landscape, embedded into the ground below the main body of the museum. Because of coastal Charleston’s vulnerabilities to hurricanes and flooding, the IAAM will be built on piers that elevate the structure roughly 13 feet off the ground. But Hood’s design still makes use of the space below the building, where he plans to install an infinity fountain, a reflecting pool, and a memorial garden crafted after the kind found in the Gullah communities offshore. The body shapes of the Brooks Map will be carved out across part of the tabby concrete floor of this space, but in full-sized bodies that will capture water from the fountain. As the water recycles, visitors will see those body outlines disappear and reappear. Hood shows how this will work in the video below, speaking at the Black in Design conference at Harvard earlier this month.
For Hood, this kind of landscape design uses mnemonic devices to trigger memories, both warm and unpleasant, and for communicating certain values and culture to the observer. There currently is nothing at the former Gadsden’s Wharf site that indicates or remembers that thousands of Africans were warehoused and killed here. So many Africans died there, Hood says, that sharks started swimming closer to the bay, in the shallow waters, where the dead bodies were dumped off. This is the kind of tragedy that Charleston and America needs to remember, he adds.
CityLab spoke with Hood at Harvard to learn more about this project and efforts in other cities to make people remember these painful eras in history.
How much of the IAAM project was inspired by the tragic killings of black members of “Mother Emanuel” African Methodist Episcopal Church in 2015?
Those killings actually happened the summer before I was asked to consider a commemorative piece for the museum. I took the [IAAM] board along with other interested people locally through a two-day workshop, which we ended at Mother Emmanuel. So it was definitely part of the diaspora in thinking about this piece and thinking about how we wanted the memorial garden to work. We went to the plantations, and we went out to Sullivan’s Island, and out to some of the Gullah communities, and then came back to Mother Emmanuel, which is just six blocks down the street from the [museum site]. It was that catharsis that helped me develop this piece. You know when you’re in Charleston and you’re dealing with a lot of these issues like murder and genocide and you’re in this landscape, I knew that we had to do something pretty prophetic.
You mentioned in your talk how cities that are rich in black history like Memphis deserve more than just a civil rights museum.
Yeah, I was tired of going to different African-American institutions and not being moved. I mean you can go literally to the place where [Martin Luther] King was murdered [at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis] and it’s not until the very end, when you are in the room, that you finally have that moment. We're talking about the Lorraine Motel. We’re talking about the diaspora of slavery. I mean, it’s a city of black folks, and the heart and soul of our culture is flowered along that Mississippi [River]. There are some amazing stories not just in the city but on the Mississippi within that landscape.
When I first went there I was blown away because I thought that it was talking about “I Am a Man,” and this was the place where King was gunned down. But then I heard they don’t even allow you on the balcony anymore. So it’s like this kind of thing where, again, these mnemonic kind of structures and devices that we have—they trigger a memory, but they don’t always trigger the right ones. It's just these clean and safe memories.
I'm sure that the fathers of Memphis don’t want to sound like,”We killed King!” But that is a memory.
Juxtapose that with the city we’re in right now, Boston, where arguably the entire city’s character is built around the patriotism and martyrdom of the men killed in the Revolutionary War. Is there a way for a city to build its identity around black patriotism and black forms of resistance in the same way?
I think there are ways to do it. There was a big Black Panther event celebrating their 50th anniversary at the Oakland museum, and we were trying to think of ways in which to talk about that within the setting. It was supposed to be a free museum when it first opened, but since Huey [Newton] was on trial they couldn’t open at first. They had to delay the opening for like two years because of that. And so it’s all there—we know the politics of Oakland is built on the Panthers. We had black leadership for 35 continuous years because of that. But no one really thinks about that. So how do we talk about that? We’re trying to have this conversation about how to remember.
Right now one of the things that [my Berkeley class] is doing is planting trees—“Hope Trees for Oakland.” If we can somehow invoke that revolutionary past through this simple gesture, it would be really amazing.