Friday, February 24, 2012

Guest Blogger, Sukie Amory, writes about the architecture of social justice

This week, we are proud to have Sukie Amory as our Guest Blogger. Ms. Amory and her husband David are the co-founders of Amory Architects, an architecture firm based here in Boston. HBI has had a long and fruitful relationship with the Amorys. Most recently, they have completed designs for the Golden Building, in Dorchester, and the Alvah Kittredge Row Houses, in Roxbury's Highland Park neighborhood, and they are currently working on plans for the Alvah Kittredge House. Ms. Amory is the financial manager for the firm. However, she is also a designer, and is renowned for her work in landscape design. Growing up in Chicago, Ms. Amory experienced an early acquaintance with historic preservation, and was able to understand from this, the power of place and memory, and how they relate to our sense of justice.

Recent HBI blogs have stirred some powerful memories for me.  Here I am, skipping ahead of my mother as we round the corner from our apartment in Chicago to join a neighborhood protest against the imminent razing of the Robie House.  This kindergartner loved Frank Lloyd Wright’s renowned Prairie Style masterpiece as “The Walking House”, whose long low walls beneath elegant cantilevered roofs were our personal jungle gym and tightrope. In March 1957 the Chicago Theological Seminary dusted off earlier plans to build dorms on the site, announcing demolition in September and igniting international protests – at 90 years old, the great man himself travelled to the house to rally support, quipping that “It all goes to show the danger of entrusting anything spiritual to the clergy.”  Even at that young age I remember the air of thrilling satisfaction in the neighborhood when we prevailed – in 1957 the new Commission on Chicago Landmarks named my “Walking House” the first Chicago Landmark, and in 1963 the National Register certified it as the first national landmark selected solely on the basis of its architectural merit.

But as HBI’s portfolio shows so well, preservation is not just about saving masterpieces of design from the wrecking ball.  It’s also about something a little harder to define -- the neighborhood fabric that falls under “don’t it always seem to go / that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” Back in my childhood neighborhood, President Obama’s favorite breakfast spot still serves the best grits and gravy in town under the sign ‘Valois Cafeteria - See Your Food’ – any threat to this neighborhood icon would probably rouse even greater local outrage than demolition of the Robie House.  So at Amory Architects we get special satisfaction reading about and working with HBI in lively neighborhood commercial districts like Dudley Square and Fields Corner.

But I was deeply moved by news that HBI is working with Rodnell Collins to preserve his mother, Ella Little Collins’ Roxbury house where his uncle Malcolm Little lived off and on from the age 16.  The transformation of an eighth-grade dropout into the disciplined, brilliant, and charismatic civil rights figure Malcolm X is an important Boston story.  As a teenager he thrilled to the night life of Dudley Square where “jukeboxes blared Erskine Hawkins, Duke Ellington, Cootie Williams,” and told his sister he had to give up a job at the Roseland State Ballroom because “I couldn’t find time to dance and shine shoes, too”.  It was here while serving time for larceny in MCI Concord and Norfolk at the young age of 20 that he embarked on his passionate self-education, laboriously copying out a dictionary by hand and reading W.E.B. Dubois The Soul of Black Folks and Milton’s Paradise Lost after lights out; and it was here that he first embraced the tenets of the Nation of Islam. 

I grew up in the midst of the Nation’s Chicago base, across the street from the homes of Elijah Mohammed and Muhammed Ali.  I’ll never forget then Cassius Clay visiting my third grade class to tell us “Be cool, stay in school,” nor the lock-down of our block by federal agents and the Fruit of Islam after Malcolm X’s assassination.  My parents Robert and Carvel Taylor had left a comfortable life in Virginia when my late father, an Episcopal priest, joined the Chicago Diocese’ groundbreaking work in prison reform. I thought I knew everything about their work in the civil rights movement. My mother dressed us in our best clothes for the Freedom Movement marches; a newspaper photo shows her in an elegant church hat kneeling with black friends in front of an Episcopal church in Selma, Alabama that denied them entry to a Sunday service.   My father was a Freedom Rider whose Northern cellmates in the Jackson Mississippi jail joked that as a Southerner he was the only one who could gain weight on prison meals of collards and sowbelly. My family treasures a book inscribed to him by Martin Luther King.  Black Panthers escorted him to the half-way house and heroin addiction program he ran for the Diocese while the city burned after King’s assassination. 

But I only found out recently that my father had a connection to Malcolm X through testimony he gave in a 1962 lawsuit to allow prisoners their constitutional right to read the Koran and be visited by Muslim clergy.  Filed by Thomas Cooper from his segregation cell in the notorious Stateville Prison in Joliet, Illinois, the case worked its laborious way through the lower courts until the Supreme Court ruled in 1964 that Cooper vs. Frank J. Pate, Warden should be heard.  Elijah Muhammed brought in New York NAACP attorney Edward Jacko, whose distinguished partner Justice Jawn Sandifer had successfully argued a 1950 landmark case before the Supreme Court that ruled that interstate trains could not ban passengers from eating in the dining cars based on race, a case considered an important precedent to Brown v. Board of Education.  In New York Jacko and Sandifer were helping Malcolm X navigate the same barriers to Muslim prison ministry that were now on trial in Illinois. The highly publicized case opened before Judge Richard Austin in April 1965, three years after it was filed and some six weeks after Malcolm X’s assassination.   Having four Episcopal prison chaplains under his direction, my father knew the situation in the prisons first hand and came out strongly for Muslim inmates’ constitutional and moral right to prison ministry in their own religion.  Judge Austin, himself a prominent Episcopalian, did rule in favor of allowing the Koran and Muslim clergy, but not without issuing what my mother describes as a blistering condemnation of my father as “a disgrace to his collar” for testifying on behalf of the plaintiff.  I’m sure this tongue lashing just rolled off said collar!

The connection between urban preservation and social justice can be a powerful one that helps illuminate hard truths about the American story.  The campus of St Leonard’s Ministries, the halfway house on Chicago’s West Side that my father helped launch and run in the 1950’s, is still anchored by handsome late 19th-century brick row houses that have become landmarks in that neighborhood’s development since the 1960’s riots.   Here in Boston, I’m glad to see HBI tell the story to a wider audience of Ella Little Collins’ brave persistence in buying her house in the face of the kind of racist red-lining that Lorraine Hansberry captured in A Raisin in the Sun.  And HBI’s work with the Collins family and the community to preserve that house that must have been a real haven for the footloose and searching young Malcolm Little as housing for scholars of social justice, religious freedom, the civil rights movement and African American history is inspired and inspiring – these important American stories are one more step in understanding our long often painful arc toward social justice.

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