Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Guest Piece: A Crucial Piece of Black History Faces Wrecking Ball in Louisiana

Text by Kenneth Bryant, Architect


Eighty years before President Obama moved into the White House, S.W. Green, the son of a former slave, not only moved into a huge white mansion, he had his built to order.  Constructed in 1928, Mr. Green’s 17-room home at 219 South Miro Street became the envy of New Orleans’ black community. Its construction caused quite an uproar.  When halfway complete it was set afire, burned reportedly by the Ku Klux Klan.  Arsonists considered it an affront that a black man would build a house bigger than theirs, near their neighborhood.  This malicious act demonstrated the ravages of segregation, how unreasonable and devastating.

But Green did not give up; he finished the house undeterred. In a town known for Gilded Age residences, Green’s white house is the city’s best example of early 20th-century African-American residential architecture. It may be the only (remaining) Afro-American mansion in the “Crescent City” from this period. The irony is that eighty years later, despite electing a black president, an Indian Governor, and an Afro-American mayor, the city of New Orleans is gearing up to do what the Klan failed to accomplish, demolish S.W. Green’s symbol of American perseverance.

The house is threatened because the State wants to make way for a new VA Hospital-LSU Medical School. Yet according to a recent study by RMJM Hillier, renovating the old facility would save taxpayers $283 million, and would hold harmless many historic buildings. But LSU wants to bulldoze the neighborhood, and relocate onto this site where S.W. Green took a stand against oppression by building a house that represents hope. Urban renewal and destruction of black history have too long been synonymous. LSU is not merely tearing down the past; they are ripping up the future, one in which children can learn black history through visiting historic sites. S.W. Green faced barriers his contemporaries never endured. To amass the fortune that made possible the building of his dream house, Mr. Green overcame obstacles such as Black Codes, Jim Crowism, and racial covenants. Yet he persevered.

Green was a grocer, who later became president of Liberty Independence Insurance. In 1908 he was appointed head of the “Colored Knights of Pythias.” From 1908-1935 he built a “fraternal empire” worth $10,000,000, earning him the title, “richest ‘black’ man in New Orleans.” Green also erected the Pythian Temple, a 7-storey office building that still stands on Loyola Avenue. Dedicated 1909, at a cost of $200,000, it was arguably the costliest building ever constructed with African-American funds. Green’s success was a team effort that included his wife “Laurenia.”

She assisted him in running his business; and as a member of the NAACP, she was active in the early struggle for civil rights, perhaps, because the Greens had experienced injustice firsthand. In 1915, traveling back to New Orleans from a convention in Florida, Mr. Green was attacked by a mob for purchasing a private cabin onboard a Pullman train. Feared lynched and rumored dead, he was missing for several days; he was sent to prison, charged with violating Jim Crow laws. Lesson being, “the darkness of his skin trumped the depth of his pockets.”

As an African-American architect and historian, I am pleading with Governor Jindal not to demolish this crucial piece of black history—because it represents the hopes and dreams of a people who just 60 years before had been enslaved. I beg the governor not to evict the residents of Mid-City from their homes. I ask that part of the $2 billion allocated to build a new VA Hospital-LSU Medical School be used to bring the neighborhood back to life by saving its historic homes and restoring the S.W. Green Mansion, thus turning it into a house museum/visitors center so that black kids - growing up in a city of turn-of-the century mansions - will be able to see that someone who looks like them also built a grand, early 20th-century Louisiana home.

Sadly, despite surviving hurricanes and arson, the one storm that the S.W. Green Mansion may be unable to overcome is “ignorance,” the negligence of culture unwilling to appreciate its past.  For now Green’s white house lives on, if only for a few more months. Its green-glazed Mediterranean-tile roof still glistens in the mid-day sun.  The sweet sultry scent of jasmine that once filled its gardens, however, after Hurricane Katrina has been replaced by the smell of mildew familiar to all who have ever visited a vacant home. - KENNETH BRYANT


For additional information contact Kenneth G.H. Bryant: Ken Bryant is an architect, artist and author of color. He holds degrees in Art and Architecture from Tulane University, plus an advanced degree from Dartmouth where he wrote a dissertation on the architecture and historic preservation of African-American sites such as the S.W. Green House. Bryant operates a boutique design firm in Manhattan that focuses on high-end classical and contemporary residences. He discovered the S.W. Green House in spring of 1996 while skateboarding when he was a student at Tulane. “Finding a Neoclassical-Revival mansion in a ghetto was so unusual I thought surely it was built for an Afro-American,” Bryant says. He rang the doorbell—a maid answered. The homeowner confirmed it was built by blacks, in fact, by arguably the richest black man in New Orleans in the 1920s. Kenneth Bryant has made it his lifelong goal to save historic buildings (often by early black architects) in marginalized communities. — (212) 290-5300 or

No comments: