2020 Eduard F. Sekler Talk

“The Home of the Oppressed”: Democracy, Slavery and American Civic Architecture

Mabel O. Wilson

"'The Home of the Oppressed': Democracy, Slavery and America’s Civic Architecture" explores how the United States’ early civic sphere formed within a landscape of chattel slavery whose laborers built and maintained the architectures of democracy. It is critical to consider that enslaved black people, humans classified as property who lacked the proper political subjectivity to be literally (and legally) self-possessed, built several of the nation’s important civic buildings—the Virginia Capitol, the White House, and the US Capitol. These edifices stand today as Enlightenment monuments to the power of reason and the virtues of equality, justice, and freedom.

Mabel O. Wilson is the Nancy and George Rupp Professor at Columbia University GSAPP and a professor in the African American and African Diasporic Studies Department. She is the author of Begin with the Past: Building the National Museum of African American History and Culture (2016) and Negro Building: Black Americans in the World of Fairs and Museums (University of California Press, 2012). She is a designer/historian on the architectural team for the Memorial to Enslaved African American Laborers at the University of Virginia.

The Eduard F. Sekler Talk was established in 2018 by a gift from Patricia Sekler in honor of her late husband, architectural historian and longtime SAH member Eduard F. Sekler (1920–2017). The Sekler Talk brings a notable speaker to the SAH membership each year to address a topic related to architecture, urbanism, preservation, the state of the field of architectural history, or a combination thereof.

In 1955 Sekler joined the faculty at Harvard University, where he became the first director of Harvard’s renowned Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts. Sekler joined SAH in 1958 and served two terms on the Board of Directors (1963–1966 and 1970–1973). He also served on the local planning committee for the Society’s 1969 annual conference held in Boston. He retired as Harvard's Osgood Hooker Emeritus Professor of Visual Art and Emeritus Professor of Architecture.

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