It is easy to look at architecture in the American South and think of grand plantation homes or impressive churches in the old historic cities such as Charleston and Savannah, but everyday Southerners had to have homes, businesses, and places of worship as well. As a nation of immigrants, our traditions come from varied places: they came with the Scotch-Irish in Appalachia, the Czechs and Moravians in Texas, the Huguenots in South Carolina, and the Moravians of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. And blacks, though most were initially brought to the South as slaves, were no different.
From the earliest days of the colonial plantations, blacks incorporated their native material culture into their daily lives, despite hardship, and this included their architecture. As historian Charles Joyner noted in his book Down by the Riverside: A South Carolina Slave Community, the two-room house of West African Yoruba traditions finds a manifestation in the common “double-pen” house type often used for slave quarters on plantations. The single-pen, or single-room, cabin was even more commonplace, but the idea that slaves were provisioned with housing somewhat familiar to their traditions was key. Such housing was neither commodious nor always even adequate, but its lineage allowed vestigial memories of Africa to be carried forward.
These traditions with African roots of course went through many modifications, but they survive and have provided some of the most crucial influences in Southern architecture seen in the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida, and the Gulf Coast—to say nothing of New Orleans. Most prominent of these contributions is the shotgun house, an economical yet unique home type seen in manifestations both low and high.
According to folklorist John Michael Vlach, “American shotgun houses drive from the fusion of distinct ethnic architectural components: a Caribbean Indian building shape, European colonial framing techniques, and African-inspired proxemics codes, in the United States they should be understood as a contribution of the free people of color from Haiti.”
What is of immediate note here is that the form of the shotgun house—a form of economy of size and shape, well-suited to small lots in the city and country alike—had Caribbean origins. Folk traditions from Africa influence the proxemics, or use of interior space by occupants, and timber-frame construction techniques from Europe informed the building process. It is also of note that freemen of color from Haiti, and not slaves, apparently were the main contributors of the house type; however, as with anything in the South, the fusion of ideas and adaptability of form was key.
In New Orleans, the shotgun house was quickly seen as a solution to a whole host of problems. For one, the shotgun house easily accommodated to small, narrow lots or offered the possibility on slightly larger lots of conserving room to provide for the all-important garden. An oddly-shaped lot, a corner lot, a lot already occupied with something else all could possibly handle the shotgun house, or you could put a great many of them together in neat rows, a fact which was not lost on designers of turpentine camps and other situations where houses were all built at once for laborers. Thus, in the mill towns of the South shotgun houses quite commonly show up, while in predominantly black neighborhoods such as New Orleans’ Bywater, you see the shotgun house alongside the bungalow as preferred housing types, contrasted in their scant size by larger, grander community buildings such as churches and schools.
It should be noted that the very elongated shotgun house type seen in New Orleans and places like Haiti is perhaps the purer form of the type, but variants are common. In Gainesville, Florida, for example, the Pleasant Street and Porters’ neighborhoods display a type that is wider on the street-facing side yet retains the classic profile and also the front and rear porches. These often are less ornate in their trim work and other details than many New Orleans examples, but they indicate how the economy and versatility of the shotgun house became very popular.
The bungalow in America was a type that came about due to expansion of population as well as expansion in the propensity of the growing middle class. This by the turn of the twentieth century included blacks in many areas, despite inequality and obstacles. The Arts and Crafts aesthetics movement led to the American Craftsman style of bungalow, and several national companies sold these as a popular kit home, including Sears, Roebuck and Company and the Aladdin Company. Affordable, reasonable in size, and yet aspirational, these bungalows also became very popular in black urban and suburban neighborhoods such as LaVilla in Jacksonville, the Pleasant Street neighborhood of Gainesville, and New Orleans’ Ninth Ward, Bywater, and St. Roch neighborhoods.
Around the same time, new construction technologies were making an impact on architecture. The cast concrete block was one such innovation, allowing builders to produce sturdy blocks for their work which could be made on site and were far less expensive to produce and work with than stone or brick. They also received paint well, and the exterior-facing side could be molded to resemble carved stone. These wonders soon began showing up in residential architecture including that of black neighborhoods in the South, but especially in black churches, where size, economy, and a stone-like lasting construction were of high concern. With stained glass windows and painted deep red or bright white, these churches made for impressive edifices.
If you consider black vernacular architecture simply as what evolved from African traditions—such as the similarity between the double-pen house and Yoruba conventions—you run the risk of missing the point of a rich atmosphere of adaptation and innovation. The double-pen, for example, was versatile: a connected yet separate kitchen could be added to it, as well as extra porches in addition to its crucial front porch. While whites and others also used the double-pen type, it and the single-pen, along with the shotgun house, became typical to blacks in rural areas, in turpentine camps where they were provided company housing in these types, and also in urban outskirts before the bungalow became popular and redefined the concept of a personal, even urbane, home over simply a house.
If the ideal of a home in the South—regardless of race—was one stemming from that of the palatial planter’s home or the vestiges of the English country manor, then every man desired a front yard, a back yard or garden, and the ability to have some feeling of a formal space—a parlor, maybe a front entry vestibule of some sort. And the newfangled luxury of an indoor bathroom, too, of course. The bungalow catered to these desires while remaining decently affordable through its kits and installment plans. Additionally, it upped the ante for other housing types, which had to compete with what comforts they too could offer.
The influence of blacks in architecture also came hand in hand with segregation in the South. In most places, duplicate facilities for blacks were built, whether these were as simple as bathrooms or as complex as movie theatres. For this reason and the general separation of the black community in many locales as nearly a town unto itself—with its own businesses such as doctors, undertakers, beauty salons, even various stores—structures remain that were designed for the black community specifically. In Covington, Virginia, a movie theatre building (in much need of repair) still stands that was “the Black theatre” for years. There were even black hospitals and certainly black schools—some of the rural ones are very interesting in their architecture and pragmatism, often making do with a structure that needed expanding over time and with little in the way of funds to do it, as in the case of the Gifford Rosenwald School in Gifford, South Carolina.
Many African decorative traditions also still turn up in black architecture—the “haint blue” paint used to paint ceilings and porches in hopes of scaring evil spirits away, as well as the small, enclosed sitting porches themselves, which are now seen in all manner of Southern homes. While the grand sweeping porches of planters’ homes were imported from Europe and run all the way back through our history to ancient Greece, the more pragmatic porches of humble homes were often partially enclosed by blacks as a means of providing a place with a cooling breeze or the addition an extra room to a single or double-pen house. Other traditions abound, from the strip quilts made of old fabric to “memory jug” in which mementos of a departed relative are placed, to the “yard show” where yards are decorated creatively with figurines, flowers, and other ornaments. These traditions and the architecture that supported them and provided them with a locus in the South lives on and is a fascinating part of our collective history.
SEE MORE “BLACK TRADITIONS IN THE ARCHITECTURE OF THE SOUTH” IMAGES HERE