On October 27, 2020, the Harvard University Graduate School of Design held a virtual event featuring Everett L. Fly, architect, former chair of the Humanities Texas Board of Directors, and recipient of a 2014 National Humanities Medal. Fly, the first African American to earn a master of landscape architecture degree from Harvard in 1977, delivered the annual Frederick Law Olmsted Lecture on the topic "American Cultural Landscapes: Black Roots and Treasures." In this lecture, excerpted below, Fly discussed the research, discovery, interpretation, and applications of his preservation and cultural landscape projects, which include autonomous Black settlements, urban enclaves, districts, schools, churches, cemeteries, cultural rituals, and traditions.
Everett Fly's commitment to creating a more complete American history through an exploration of historic places and the people who built and used them led to a lifetime of service. He served as vice chair of the Humanities Texas Board of Directors in 1992 and chair from 1993 to 1994. His expertise and commitment to the humanities are vast; during his time on the state council board, he also served on the board of the Federation of State Humanities Councils (1991–1994) and as a member of the prestigious President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities (1994–2001). He reflected on these experiences in an oral history interview with Humanities Texas in 2013. Fly was recently awarded the 2018 San Antonio Power of Preservation Foundation "Champion of Preservation Award" and the 2020 Conservation Society of San Antonio "Texas Preservation Hero Award."
Excerpt from the introduction by Anita Berrizbeitia, professor of Landscape Architecture and chair of the Department of Landscape Architecture, Harvard Graduate School of Design.
The core achievement in Everett Fly's career has been the development of a database and archive of places and landmarks designed by Black Americans. This database and archive of 1,200 sites and counting goes back to the early colonial period and includes historic Black settlements, places of burial, churches, productive and pleasure gardens, streets, and agricultural landscapes—in other words, all the landscapes where the daily lives and rituals of Black people in their communities took place during and after enslavement.
This extraordinary contribution to the history of this country and to our discipline has been not only sustained over a long period of time—four decades—it has been painstaking and laborious. Imagine for a moment adding to the reality of an ephemeral medium that depends on human will for its longevity, the challenge of no official records such as property deeds, nor personal written accounts like letters, diaries, or graphic representations such as maps, photographs, or paintings. To this inherent vulnerability, we can add a centuries-old disregard for the historical value of such places.
Against these odds, Everett Fly reaches out to the past, piecing together history, literature, religion, geography, and records of the most unusual type, such as cattle branding records, and cross references them with oral histories and vernacular techniques of transforming the land. In doing so, he brings these places vividly into the present, changing what we know and how we know it.
I want to thank you, Professor Berrizbeitia, and I would like to thank the Department of Landscape Architecture, the student representatives, and those who were involved in recommending me for this distinguished honor. I'm not sure how my work will measure up to the stature of Frederick Law Olmsted, but I will do my best in this presentation to share what I believe are some of the collective legacies of Black America that deserve acknowledgment and respect.
I use the words "roots" and "treasures" in my presentation because, throughout my career, I came to recognize how deeply embedded African American contributions are in the American landscape. I've also learned how rare and valuable so many of these places are. They are treasures.
As you heard Professor Berrizbeitia mention, the work has been tedious. Many times, the experiences have not been for the faint of heart. As I go through the presentation, I will credit people and organizations who have assisted along the way. I hope this will convey the collaborative nature that is absolutely necessary to achieve success in this arena.
I will begin with background on the origins of my Black settlement research at Harvard and then provide a few examples of projects that have offered research and practical applications.
As I did my studies at The University of Texas at Austin in the mid-1970s, I was required to take a number of architectural history courses—ancient Egyptian, Roman, Renaissance, Gothic, and, of course, modern. None of these courses mentioned anything that Black people had planned or done or created. In fact, Black people were not mentioned in any role in building or construction.
In the fall of 1975, when I arrived at the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD), my academic advisor, Dr. Karl Steinitz, insisted that I take one more history class. That was J. B. Jackson's "Built American Landscape Since 1865." Jackson covered topics ranging from westward settlement to roads, barns, and fences, from town squares and sacred burial sites to commercial highway and strip development. He only mentioned that Black slaves had worked on Southern plantations and settled in rural villages when they were emancipated in 1865. This raised my rebellious curiosity.
When it came time to submit the required term paper topic, I chose to research the existence of Black towns and settlements. Professor Jackson required students to meet with him for final approval of the proposed topic and to discuss research strategy. When he read my proposal, he warned me sternly that I would find little or no secondary resource material to provide easy documentation or information leads.
Remember, this was 1975. There was no internet to Google topics or communicate by email. Public and academic interest in historic Black communities was almost non-existent. Only a few academic theses had been written or prepared, mostly about Black towns in places like Oklahoma, Mississippi, and Alabama.
Professor Jackson gave me an initial reference list that was extremely limited, and I still remember it today. He told me to read whatever I could, including the writings of Dr. Booker T. Washington, founder and first president of Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute (now Tuskegee University). He gave me a list of magazines: The Crisis, which was the official magazine of the NAACP, and The Century, which was published in New York City; and encyclopedias of place names. He also told me, as I got up to leave the room, that he wouldn't let me change the topic. He said if I got frustrated or tired, I just had to stick with it.
He told me I couldn't change my topic, but he told me he would help, and I was really surprised at that offer. He instructed one of his teaching assistants to acquire a library rare books pass that would allow me access to the items on his list. I immediately began regular visits to Widener Library. Most of my research time was spent in the evenings after design classes. The library rules only allowed me to check out a few volumes at a time and read them at a study desk in the library. If I found a citation, I had to flag it with a strip of paper and take it to a coin copy machine. Most of the citations were brief, one or two lines in length. And they only mentioned things like a Negro settlement, a colored church, or a Negro village. This is how I began my original Black settlements research.
Bit by bit, I was able to find enough documentation on thirty or forty Black communities, including Tuskegee, Alabama; Mound Bayou, Mississippi; Hobson City, Alabama; and Eatonville, Florida. I collected enough to submit a coherent paper and thought I had proved my point—that African Americans had even built towns. I was relieved and thrilled when I learned that I had passed Jackson's class.
Jackson literally taught me how to begin research from scratch. In the fall of 1976, he asked Charles W. Harris, then the chair of the Department of Landscape Architecture, for permission to add to my workload by making a presentation to his graduate seminar that fall. Professor Harris approved the request but also began to track the progress of this special assignment on his own.
Professors Harris and Jackson began to send me further and further afield. They had me look for soil conservation reports, service aerials, U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) maps, and scholars at other academic institutions. I had to write a lot of letters by hand or type to see if there was anyone out in the world who knew anything about this topic—to the National Park Service, the National Archives, and Library of Congress. I even made a trip down to Washington, DC. The only book we were able to find was Dr. Nell Painter's Exodusters, which had just been published. Dr. Painter happened to be on sabbatical at Harvard in the fall of 1976, and Jackson was able to schedule a face-to-face appointment and interview for me regarding my research. By the time I completed the seminar, I had gathered a little less than one hundred names of Black towns and settlements.
In 1979, I received a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) fellowship. The funding gave me an opportunity to travel to some of the Black settlements that I had researched and actually spend time in the National Archives and the Library of Congress. The experience of direct contact with rare primary source materials and the country's top archivists and historians was invaluable. This is what allowed me to begin to develop my typology.
While I was in the Archives, I found a color postcard of what was called the Negro Building that was built for the 1907 Jamestown Ter-Centennial Exposition in Norfolk, Virginia. I was so curious about this that I continued to ask the archivist about this event. They were able to actually find the record group that included this photograph, which also included an archival box. In the archival box were the folded blueprint sheets of the Negro Building. I was able to determine that this building was designed by a Black architect named W. Sidney Pittman, who was a Tuskegee Institute graduate and, by coincidence, the son-in-law of Dr. Booker T. Washington.
I also came across a number of resorts. I had the great pleasure, at the time, to meet Miss Bertha Calloway, who, at that time, owned the Winks Panorama Lodge in Lincoln Hills, Colorado, northwest of Denver. The Lincoln Hills Club, as it was called, was organized in 1922, and they started selling lots to African Americans for payments as low as $5 down and $5 a month because African Americans were not allowed at any of the other Rocky Mountain resorts at that time. Wendell Winks Hamlet was the original owner of the Lodge. He was also the caretaker, chief cook, and bottle washer and sold coal and wood to folks in the area for fire. The Lodge and Lincoln Hills had never been researched, and I was able to work with Miss Calloway to write a National Register nomination.
When we finished the National Register application, Miss Calloway sent it in to the Historic Preservation Office of Colorado. It was so far up in the mountains that they didn't send anybody out to actually check it, and they denied the application. Miss Calloway was so determined; she got in her car and drove to the Historic Preservation Office and made someone get in the car. She took them out to Lincoln Hills, and, once they saw it, they put it on the register. Miss Calloway also had a guest book, and listed in the guest book, handwritten, were people such as Count Basie, Billy Eckstine, Duke Ellington, Lena Horne, Langston Hughes, and Zora Neale Hurston.
The next major discovery for me while I was working on the NEA grant was Freedman's Village in Arlington, Virginia. I got into a conversation with one of the archivists, and he said that he had heard some stories about a Freedman's town. He went into the stacks and came out with a set of records. When the layout of Freedman's Village is superimposed on a map of Arlington, you can see it covers what is now Arlington National Cemetery.
If you visit the Arlington Cemetery website now, it includes historical facts about Freedman's Village. It says, for example, "Nearly 4,000 former slaves are buried at Arlington National Cemetery. After seizing Lee's estate, the federal government set aside acreage to be a model community for emancipated, freed and fugitive slaves. Freedman's Village included farmland, homes, a hospital, a school, and a mess hall before shuttering in 1900. African Americans who lived at the village were buried on the property, and their graves were incorporated into Section 27 of Arlington National Cemetery. Their headstones are inscribed with 'citizen' or 'civilian.'"
But there is more to this story. In 1778, Martha Washington's son, General George Washington's stepson, John Parke Custis, purchased the land, which is now Arlington. In 1802, George Washington Parke Custis, son of John Parke Custis, had begun construction of a new mansion on the property called Arlington House. Two of the enslaved people in Mr. Custis's house were named Charles Syphax and Maria Carter. In 1817, Arlington House construction was completed. Much of the labor for construction of the house was provided by enslaved people—blacksmiths, brick layers, coopers, ditchers, carpenters, wagoners, and carriers.
Some accounts credit Charles Syphax as the supervisor of construction of the north, south, and middle additions to Arlington House. Charles Syphax and Maria Carter were married in 1821. In 1826, Maria Carter Syphax and two of her children were freed, or manumitted, by Mr. George Washington Parke Custis but were allowed to continue living on the estate. In 1831, Mary Ann Randolph Custis, George Washington Parke Custis's daughter, married Colonel Robert E. Lee and they moved to Arlington estate. Maria Carter Syphax and her family continued to live at Arlington estate with other enslaved people. The United States Senate and House of Representatives passed a bill in 1866 granting the title to seventeen acres of land out of the tract known as Arlington estate to Maria Syphax as part of her "birthright from her father, George Washington Parke Custis."
At this point in the research, I knew that I had to find ways, at my expense or otherwise, to uncover this history of place that had been underrepresented, hidden, and denied across the United States. Black history at Arlington National Cemetery is rooted in the history of place and is a treasure.
In the process of doing the NEA fellowship, I had to find non-traditional ways of researching, so I began to use text records, oral history, cartographic records, and even photographs. I had the opportunity to meet some photographic interpreters in the National Archives, who gave me clues on how to look at photographs and date them based on the style of the clothes and that kind of thing. I also had the opportunity to meet Charles Birnbaum when he was working at the National Park Service and beginning the groundwork on the significance of cultural landscapes.
The result of the NEA work was this Black settlement typology, and it was just to keep myself organized. In my typology, settlements range from villages of the enslaved to contraband camps, rural villages to Black towns—there were Black railroad towns, industrial towns, market towns, Black suburbs, Black migration towns, Black resorts, and institutional homes. There were also rural resettlement communities in the 1930s; alley dwellings in Washington, Chicago, and even in San Antonio; and urban enclaves all over the United States.
I've had the great pleasure to work with Eatonville, Florida, for a little bit more than thirty years. My classmate from Harvard, Glenn Acomb, happened to be living in the Orange County, Florida, area in the late 1980s, and he remembered my research work at the GSD on Black settlements. The Orange County government had proposed to build an east-west thoroughfare to make commercial traffic flow faster, and they thought that the path of least resistance would be through Eatonville.
Many of you might recognize Eatonville because it is acknowledged as the childhood home of writer Zora Neale Hurston. Mrs. N.Y. Nathiri called me and asked me, on Glenn's recommendation, if I would come and talk to them about a strategy for historic preservation. I'll never forget this story.
When I went to Eatonville, I asked Mrs. Nathiri if they had any town archives. She said all the archives were stored downtown in the county records office. It took some doing, but they finally found a map. At the bottom of the map, there is a kind of meandering line. It turned out that meandering line had been a migratory path for indigenous and Native people. In other words, when they would migrate to hunt or fish, for example, they used that path. And it just happened that the bottom rightmost corner, or township section, was where Eatonville was located.
When Zora Neale Hurston wrote her book Dust Tracks on a Road, that was Zora's road. Once I made that literary connection, I can remember standing on the side of Kennedy Boulevard and telling Mrs. Nathiri that people would pay her to come to Eatonville and see what they had and what they were doing.
Folks in Eatonville were very industrious. They were able to get a teacher to come from Tuskegee to start a school. Today we would say that it was a charter school. The teacher's name was Russell Calhoun, and Mr. Calhoun happened to have taken a number of gardening and landscape classes while he was a student at Tuskegee, so they built a building called Washington Hall, and it became known as the Hungerford School. Mr. Calhoun began to teach subsistence and what they called "truck gardening" back at that time. Eatonville Mayor Joe Clark was, you might say, one of Mr. Calhoun's adult students and developed his own pineapple farm.
I went to Eatonville to see if I could gather more information. I asked a group of seniors to come and sit and do a group oral history. I asked them to talk about or reminisce about their stories of Eatonville and if they could tell me where people lived, where major events happened, and other recollections. They remembered where the schoolteacher lived. Some of them remembered where Hurston lived when she lived in Eatonville. As they say, the rest was history. We were able to put this together and help develop the National Register nomination.
The incorporation of the town of Eatonville and others represents what I call a collective heroic act, which opened doors to its residents and visitors fifty years before there was a civil rights movement. Many people don't know or remember that there were regulations called Black Codes or Jim Crow laws. But if you lived in a town like Eatonville, where the mayor was Black, the sheriff was Black, the fire chief was Black, the town council was Black, then you had a right to own and hold and sell property. You had a right to education. You had a right to vote. I'm going to say that again: you had a right to vote. You had a right to choose your trade or profession. You had a right to seek and hold public office. You had a right to hold public assembly without being harassed.
Mrs. Nathiri, the town, and the association to preserve the Eatonville community developed the Zora Neale Hurston Festival of the Arts and Humanities. Eatonville has a population of a little bit less three thousand. It is about 98 percent African American. They were able to leverage their history and their connection to Zora Neale Hurston to create this festival. The first festival, in 1990, attracted about ten thousand people. Pre-COVID, the community was able to attract, on a regular basis, more than one hundred thousand people in late January or early February when the festival is held. People come from literally all over the world and all over the United States to engage this history.
About seven months ago, my cousin, Latrell Giles, contacted me and said that her friend Cheryl McBeth was working to find ways to protect family cemeteries in her community in Brazoria County, Texas, southwest of Houston. In her genealogy work, Cheryl had discovered that there were extended family relationships that connected multiple sites with African American history in Brazoria County.
My wife, Linda, was good enough to drive with me down to Brazoria to meet with Ms. McBeth and other community residents. One of the people we met with was Ms. Evelyn Jammer, who is also a member of the Grace United Methodist Church. As we talked with Ms. Jammer, several layers of cultural history were revealed.
She showed us the burial plot on the church property, and we looked at some of the headstones. She said there was another cemetery, and they are all related, all connected. Most of the markers in this cemetery are indiscreet. Either they are pipes or simple stone. There are a few carved stones. Some of the individuals buried in this cemetery have been documented as actually being enslaved people from Africa.
Ms. Jammer went on to explain that members of her family had been enslaved on a plantation within a mile of this site. The plantation is called the Levi Jordan Plantation. Ms. Jammer shared the church history with us, and it revealed that this congregation, Grace United Methodist, actually began on the plantation property and evolved into several churches that still exist in Brazoria County today. Historical commission research verified that the Levi Jordan plantation house was built by enslaved labor. The indications are that Mr. Levi Jordan brought these enslaved people to Texas with Stephen F. Austin's three hundred colonists. Mr. Jordan and his slaves have roots in Texas.
When you look south from the church, you can see Farm to Market Road 316 that heads south towards the Gulf Coast. If you continue south along that road, you will come across three churches, all of which evolved out of the Levi Jordan Plantation and also evolved out of the Grace United Methodist Church. Some of the churches have their own cemeteries and their own legacies and history.
The U.S. Geological Survey shows the approximate boundary of the original Levi Jordan plantation. It was more than two thousand acres. Looking to the south, there are other sites that have authentic connections to the plantation—either genealogical, or institutional, or religious. They go all the way down to near the coast, but they are all within two miles of the plantation site. In other words, we can trace the origin of these communities and these rural settlements and congregations.
For me, this is an exciting cultural landscape project to be able to track the origin of these folks in these communities and see how they connect or relate to us today.
The last stop is San Antonio. I stop here, not just because it's my hometown, but because there are so many things going on in San Antonio that seem to be current and seem to resonate across the country. San Antonio is one of the fastest-growing cities in the United States. We are at about 1.5 million people—64.2 percent Hispanic, 24.8 percent White, 6.9 percent Black, 2.8 percent Asian, about 0.8 percent Native or Indigenous American. We have county and city historic commissions. We have a strong city office of preservation. We have more than thirty local historic districts and counting.
Believe it or not, with San Antonio having a small African American population, we've never been more than 10 percent at a time. A few years ago, someone made the statement to me that there is no Black history in San Antonio, so I began to comb through my records and pieced together some history.
One of the interesting pieces of information that was helpful involved the cattle brands. Of course, people recognized that Spanish colonial explorers brought the cowboy tradition, the vaqueros, and it grew from there. But many people do not know or understand that there were people of African descent in that legacy.
I began to search in the Bexar County Spanish archives and found cattle brand certificates that go back to the Spanish colonial time. Using multiple types of information—oral history, maps, and documentation—I was able to locate where Black folks owned farms, ranches, or had pastures for cattle. Many times, if you look closely at the entries on these certificates, you see that they list where they lived on the Salado Creek or west of town. That was very helpful. I was trying to find a way to get people to engage with this and ask questions, so I came up with the idea of putting the cattle brands on baseball caps.
So far, I've come up with more than seventy-five certificates that were filed by African Americans. Five of those were filed by Black women. Jane Warren, in 1875, was one of those. Not too long ago, I found Margaret Demery Smith, and so far she is the Black woman with the earliest registered brand—1856. Her family came to Texas in 1835. Because at the time the Texas Constitution did not allow free Blacks to live in Texas, they had to submit a written petition to the state republic government and ask for permission to stay, and their permission was granted. Around 1850, they arrived in the San Antonio area, and, in 1856, Ms. Demery filed her certificate.
In order to address the absence of local African American history, I met with Mr. George Frederick, the president of Hope House Ministries in San Antonio. We have incorporated the San Antonio African American Community Archive and Museum (SAAACAM). We used a grant, working with the University of North Carolina and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and with great assistance from the Kronkosky Charitable Foundation in San Antonio.
There is a project on Alamo Plaza that is going on now that we are all concerned about. The Alamo Trust is proposing to build a museum, more than one hundred thousand square feet, to house artifacts related to the Alamo, but there seems to be resistance in acknowledging the significance of indigenous and civil rights history on the Plaza.
My friend Ramon Vasquez has shared information with me indicating that, as early as 1721, Catholic church records indicate that soldiers of African descent are included in the burials in and around the Plaza and downtown San Antonio. In 1887, African Americans applied for a permit to hold a public meeting on Alamo Plaza. The permit was denied. When the African American citizens did attempt to have the event, a group of rabble rousers physically disrupted the meeting and chased the African American citizens a mile to the west to one of the African American churches. In 1935, when the planning was being done for the Texas Centennial, African Americans petitioned to be included in the memorialization of the Republic of Texas. They were denied.
When you are on the Plaza, immediately opposite the Alamo is the Woolworth Building. This building was built in 1921. It had one of the first lunch counters that was desegregated in the city in 1960. A group called the Coalition for the Woolworth has organized. It includes the Conservation Society of San Antonio, the San Antonio branch of the NAACP, the SAAACAM, the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, the West Side Preservation Alliance, the Mexican American Civil Rights Institute, San Antonio for Growth on the East Side, and individual advocates. This group has been able to receive World Monuments Fund Monuments Watch status for the Woolworth Building as a place of significance within the civil rights movement.
I can't begin to tell you how critical it is to recognize these African American resources in these cultural landscapes. Almost on a daily basis, I get an email from somebody or some organization asking, how do we protect these? How do we preserve them? I've seen many modern plans recently where the designer completely erases any traces of African American and Native American artifacts on properties. It shows, not only the lack of sensitivity, but also a lack of a collective understanding of how important our cultural landscapes are.
What I have shown you is a micro drop in the bucket. There is lots of work to be done. There are all kinds of facets and aspects of to be addressed. I encourage you to do that and move forward with all of your zeal and inspiration and talent and skill.
Watch Everett Fly's full lecture on “American Cultural Landscapes: Black Roots and Treasures,” presented by the Harvard University Graduate School of Design.