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Students engage with Black ‘memory workers’ in NYC

Students engage with Black ‘memory workers’ in NYC

An interdisciplinary symposium in the fall took students from Ithaca to New York City to explore African-American heritage sites and the people whose work keeps this history alive.

For Nia Whitmall, a PhD student in anthropology, the course, “Black Memory Workers and Their Spatial Practices: Explorations on New York City’s African American Heritage Spaces,” allowed her to learn about the connections between many of her interests. She also had the opportunity to meet and photograph Michael Henry Adams, a Harlem historical preservationist, and visit Historic Brownstone in Brooklyn and Harlem.

“This aspect of the journey really spoke to how multidisciplinary and multi-layered the course was,” Whitmall said. “Obviously architecture has been at the fore, but my background in anthropology has always been relevant. So has textile and fiber design, African-American literature, and in this case, interior design, genealogy and property development.”

The four-credit seminar was taught by Peter Robinson 1998, Visiting Critic in the School of Architecture, Arts and Planning. and Richie Richardson, Professor of African Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences. It is the third phase of the Cornell Mellon Collaborative Studies in Architecture, Urbanism, and the Humanities.

Robinson said, citing the example of Roberta Washington, founding director of Roberta Washington Architects, whose brownstone has become: the home of documents relating to the history of black architecture.

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

“Design strategy taught me to plan effectively by imagining to the fullest, and then being able to organize the most relevant information for use,” said Elisha Amadasu, a senior officer at Medgar Evers. “This is another useful way to look at life planning.”

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

“I had the opportunity to see President Obama’s vision of my brother’s bodyguard pay off in a big way,” he said. Quoting one of the professors who attended the show, “They owned the room! “This bridge of opportunity could not have been done without the tutelage of Peter Robinson who introduced students to architecture and urban design and assembled a team of Cornell University graduate students and mentors to work with students on this project. This was a huge investment in our young students, and I couldn’t To be happier with the result.”

During their trip to New York City, Cornell University BHH students explored; Africa Burials National Monument with Nicole Holant Dennis 89, Architect of Record; conservation area at the Museum of Modern Art; Many churches, sites and historical brownstone. They also met many black memory professionals and architects and participated in a workshop at the Gensler Family Center AAP NYC, where Hulant Dennis presented her work.

After their visit to the city, Cornell students selected final projects involving the community that focus on one of the sites or projects they visited.

“All the students put in place tangible, tangible results,” Richardson said. “It was a special, multi-level experience. I don’t remember another class where the students had the opportunity to experience the amount of connections they were able to make in this semester.”

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