News & Ideas

Place Making at Howard University and Beyond

Hazeledwards 07 By Kyala Batalha
Hazel Ruth Edwards. Photo by Kayla Batalha

Hazel Ruth Edwards merges her passions for architecture and historically Black colleges and universities to better understand our past and present.

Hazel Ruth Edwards credits her grandfather Gaston Alonzo Edwards, the first Black man licensed to practice architecture in North Carolina, with sparking her passion for how the built environment shapes our daily lives.

“I didn’t know him personally, but he was a major influence on me,” says Edwards, a 2023–2024 Harvard Radcliffe Institute fellow and a professor and former chair of the architecture department at Howard University. “My father was always talking about him and his work as an architect and repeating one of his favorite lines: ‘Measure 10 times, cut once.’”

Another passion for Edwards involves Howard—her alma mater, one of many historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) attended by several generations of her family, and the focus of her current research.

It was at Howard in the late 1990s that Edwards’s interests coalesced as she began tracing the historical evolution of the university’s campus, examining it through the lens of race and how the Black-centered institution survived and thrived in the District of Columbia, which was for much of its history a fairly provincial town in the segregated South. Edwards later broadened her reach to other HBCUs, exploring “whether there is a unique placemaking typology at historically Black colleges and universities,” she says.

At Radcliffe, she is building on her earlier work to develop a process that investigates the untold stories of the physical development of HBCUs, reconciling their past within the framework of political, social, and economic conditions.

“I want to study that in more detail and ask questions using Howard as a pilot because I know that university better than any other institution in the world,” says Edwards. “I wanted to start with something that’s familiar to develop a process, and I envision producing a manuscript about the Howard research—as well as a playbook of sorts that could help other HBCUs or any type of institution uncover their connections to the indigenous people, slavery, and the disposition of their land.”

An aerial photo of the present-day Howard University campus, in Wahsington, DC. Photo by Westend61 GmbH/Alamy Stock Photo

Evolution of a Campus

Edwards studied architecture at Howard, graduating in 1986. She received her master of architecture in urban design degree from Harvard in 1989 and a PhD in regional planning from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in 1993. She was a Carolina Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill from 1993 to 1995. There, she was able to visit several of her grandfather’s buildings and the HBCUs where her grandparents and her parents taught. From 1995 to 1999, she was Howard’s special assistant for campus planning and development when she coauthored, with Harry G. Robinson III MCU ’73, The Long Walk: The Placemaking Legacy of Howard University (Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, 1996). The book, which became the basis for the school’s 1998 campus master plan, offers an in-depth look at the long history of the university’s physical growth and the evolution of its campus as a unique and sacred space.

As part of her earlier research, Edwards found that the land Howard sits on had been the location of a plantation that used enslaved laborers. By 1867, when the land was bought to house the school, slavery had been abolished in Washington, but the racial divide in the city and across America continued to set Howard and similar campuses apart. Not long after, when the trustees of Howard proposed buying up three acres of land to build the campus, the owner of the farmland, John A. Smith, refused to sell off individual pieces to them. Undaunted, the trustees bought his entire 150-acre property instead.

At Radcliffe, one of Edwards’s student researchers recently came across a document indicating that Smith was not only a farmer but a real estate magnate who was buying up large swaths of land in the area. That find has led Edwards to surmise that Smith did not want “a Negro school close to his family—but even more so, probably didn’t want the land to be devalued by such an institution,” she says. “I think that's very interesting, and it makes a lot of sense given that the nation’s capital was in close proximity and growing significantly.”

By continuing to study “those racialized land patterns” and comparing the past to the present, particularly in the context of gentrification, Edwards hopes to better understand how the area and the attitudes around Howard continue to evolve. She cites a recent example from 2019, when many Howard students expressed frustration with nearby residents using their campus’s hallowed central yard to walk their dogs, and their anger at one white resident’s suggestion that the university be relocated if they didn’t want to be a part of the community. The DC area has attracted increasingly affluent white residents in recent years, making it less affordable for Howard students, many of whom consider the campus as sacrosanct.

“Howard University was created because Black people were not allowed in white spaces,” wrote one social media user whose online comments were reprinted in the Washington Post. “Dogs would viciously attack us at their white owner’s call. For a white man to say we should ‘move’ our historic university to accommodate his dog … shows history repeats itself.”

Documenting the Past

As part of her fellowship, Edwards is also backing up her hypotheses with documentation. “Often I am making interpretations from some of the images I’ve looked at in my past research, learning to put into narrative form what is graphically shown, and now I am finding the evidence that supports a lot of those things,” she says. One piece of insight was the “prevailing attitudes of non-Blacks toward establishing a Negro college adjacent to the nation’s capital,” says Edwards, who is scouring newspapers and other records with her Radcliffe Research Partners for evidence of those attitudes, comparing, she says, “what happened in the 19th century to what is happening today. The magic is coming from the re-evaluation of the 1990s research that produced The Long Walk to use a more critical lens for this work.”

In addition to offering up a creative space, the fellowship has also been a haven for Edwards. Photo by Kayla Batalha

In addition to offering up a creative space, the fellowship has also been a kind of haven for Edwards who was diagnosed with breast cancer the day after she heard of her acceptance to Radcliffe. She receives chemotherapy every few weeks at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, has lost 85 pounds, and is often fatigued but always encouraged, she says, by having a renewed lease on life. She takes comfort in the work and in her colleagues, she adds, who have inspired her to push her ideas forward in new ways.

“This fellowship has helped me to free the clutter in my mind to be able to be more thoughtful about this project,” Edwards says.

Colleen Walsh is a freelance writer.

Return to the spring 2024 Radcliffe Magazine home page.

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