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Columbia professor talks about Wright, race and education

Mabel O. Wilson, a professor of architecture at Columbia University, will speak at the Martin House Complex next week about a never-built school Frank Lloyd Wright designed in 1928 for African-American children in the South.

Wilson is one of the curators for the Museum of Modern Art's retrospective exhibit, "Frank Lloyd Wright at 150: Unpacking the Archive," which celebrates the 150th anniversary of Wright's birth. Wright's little-known Rosenwald School plan is among the exhibit's 450 works on display.

The Rosenwald Schools, part of the progressive educational reform movement, came out of an early 20th-century collaboration between Booker T. Washington, then head of of the Tuskegee Normal School for Colored Teachers,  and the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute to build utilitarian schools for segregated black youth. Later, the Rosenwald Fund, established by philanthropist Julius Rosenwald, president of the mail-order Sears, Roebuck & Company, would help fund some 5,000 schools.

Buffalo businessman Darwin Martin offered to donate to a new practice teaching school on the Hampton campus if Wright was its designer. Wright's renderings showed a doughnut-shaped design with chevron-patterned shingles and diamond-shaped windows to replace the New England clapboard-style prefabrication design then in use.

Wilson will speak at 7 p.m. Friday Sept. 8 in Martin House's Greatbatch Pavilion, 125 Jewett Parkway. Tickets are $35, $25 for members.

The News spoke to Wilson on Thursday.

Q: How many Wright drawings of the practice school are there?

A: There are two. One is a large, three-dimensional drawing in the Library of Congress, and one is in the Wright archive. It's a pencil drawing on trace paper, what's known as a process drawing. There is only a slight difference in the way the facade was drawn; otherwise, both show pretty much the same building.

Q: What was Darwin Martin's role in getting Wright involved?

A: My understanding from reading the letters, and understanding Wright's career, is that Wright had got himself into a little trouble and lost control of his studio in Taliesen, Wis., and was looking for work. It was a low point in his career, and so Darwin Martin, his patron, was trying to find work with him.

The house that Wright built: the Darwin Martin House on Jewett Parkway. (Sharon Cantillon/News file photo)

Q: Had Wright shown interest before in progressive education?

A: He had. Wright was in a constellation of people interested in experimental ideas. He had two sisters who ran a school with a curriculum quite unusual and progressive for the time. Wright's mother, Anna Lloyd Wright, taught him using the techniques of German educator Friedrich Froebel, who used games and other forms of play to see basic geometric forms and to learn through hands-on experience. And the Unitarian minister Jenkin Lloyd Jones, his uncle, went with Rosenwald and social reformer Jane Addams to Tuskegee to see the first schools Rosenwald helped fund. Wright also designed a number of projects for clients that espoused certain ideas around play and imagination and theater.

Q: What made the Rosenwald schools different?

A: The original designs by black builders is kind of a how-to manual for how to put a school together. That's why there is a level of standardization in them. You didn't want anything to be too nice in the South because white people would get angry and burn down your school.

Q: Why was Wright's school design rejected?

A: I think the principal of Hampton Institute who brought Wright in, and was an acquaintance of Martin, got pushed out or left. The person who took his place thought Wright's design was too pretty for the Negro, that the Negro needed something more plain and simple.

Q: What do we learn about Wright's attitude toward African Americans?

A: The way he described African Americans is done in a kind of typical, racialized way. He essentially says they are docile children who like bright colors and like to sing. It's minstrelsy from the South. This is the time of the Harlem Renaissance. There is so much to know, and yet he's referring to black people as "darkies." People want to say Wright is a product of his time, but he was around people like Jane Adams and other progressives who wouldn't refer to black people that way.

Q: You wrote a book in 2012 that touches Buffalo in another way. In writing "Negro Building: Black Americans in the World of Fairs and Museums," what struck you about the Pan-American Exposition?

A: Race is always central to these expositions, often as an extension of European and white superiority. And of course, as always in these expos you have the midway and all the stereotypes trotted out for fun and games, like the colonized Indians and the Negro. But an exhibit in France that W.E. B. DuBois curated and Washington helped raise money for came to Buffalo. That was big news in the black press. A group of middle-class black women,  including Mary Talbert, decided it should be in the exposition and managed to get it in, which was pretty astonishing.


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