And he spoke to the children of Israel, saying, When your children shall ask their fathers in time to come, saying, What mean these stones? Then you shall let your children know, saying, Israel came over this Jordan on dry land. (Joshua 4:21)
I have a confession: I’m not a Real Architectural Historian. I didn’t take classes about Greek and Roman and World architecture and I don’t know all the classical orders by heart or smack a style on every building I come to. No, I’m really just a plain ol’ Historian who happens to love old buildings. And the thing I love most is finding the meaning of the buildings and neighborhoods around me, looking at the details and letting them tell their stories. Many buildings don’t tell their story right out–they put their best face forward on the facade, smooth over any changes that have occurred, make everything look nice. Often to get at the full picture, you have to go behind, inside, even up in the attics and under the foundation.
For example, here’s a building in downtown Clarksdale, the McWilliams Building. It was built in 1917 and at seven stories was the first ”skyscraper” in Clarksdale (here’s a better historic postcard image of it showing it in its original glory). It was designed by architect John Gaisford, an Englishman who came to Memphis in 1905. In addition to the office tower, the building contained the Paramount Theater, with an entry through that little one-story section you can barely see there to the left. I could talk about the oddities of the building, it’s Craftsman and Mediterranean influences, the changes that have occurred, most unfortunately the removal of the original tile pent roof. We could discuss Gaisford’s geneology as an architect–who he trained with, where he practiced before, etc. These are legitimate topics that architectural historians love to sink their teeth into.
But let’s look at another view of this building.
What I really find most fascinating about this building are these stairs at the back of the Paramount Theater. I first saw the stairs several years ago, and I’ve thought about them many times since. “Ok,” you’re saying, “Malvaney loves stairs–so many pictures of stairs!” Well, that’s true, but these stairs are extra special; they have true significance because they were the “Colored” stairs. During the days of Jim Crow segregation, these were the stairs all African Americans had to go up to get to the upper and lower balconies in the theater. They weren’t allowed to sit in the nice upholstered seats on the floor–those were reserved for white people. These stairs tell an important story not only about Mississippi, but about the larger culture in which segregation existed.
These stairs are the kinds of architectural artifacts that are often unthinkingly removed–they’re not “pretty,” may not be up to today’s code, serve no purpose anymore, etc. Or they might be purposely taken down: some might say that they are an offense and a bad memory, or that their presence might be construed as glorifying segregation. Others might want them torn down because the past should be left in the past–”don’t dredge up bad things.” I disagree with both perspectives: the stairs should remain, not to make people feel guilty or angry, but so that when children, black or white or Asian or Hispanic or whatever, ask their fathers, “what do these stairs mean?” the fathers can tell them about the story behind those stairs. Removing them would be to deny that history is complex, that human beings are flawed: preserving only the “good” parts of history gives a false view of ourselves, allows us to think that everything used be unalloyed greatness.
Knowing the story behind these stairs doesn’t make me wallow in guilt–it does teach me lessons. It makes me stop and think about my own society and what blind spots I may have, in the same way that people in the past had. It also makes me thankful that the Jim Crow era is over and that, while racism still exists, Mississippi has come far from that time. That’s something to be proud of, whether or not people outside the state recognize it.
Yes, the stairs tell us the story of oppression–of one race telling another race where it could go and what it could do. But look a little longer and you will notice other stories too–the story of accommodation for one. How two races co-existed, enjoyed the same entertainments, in the same building, at the same time. Compare that to other cultures of oppression around the world–the ghettos the Nazis erected for the Jews, the caste system in India, Apartheid in South Africa–and the layers of meaning start to peel away, revealing differences and similarities that deepen your understanding of this complicated, interwoven, very human place we call Mississippi. Our authors, blues musicians, and families have all told us these stories. Our architecture can too, if only we have eyes to see and ears to hear.