Hidden in Plain Sight: The Ghosts of Segregation

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tags: Jim Crow, architecture, segregation, material culture, built environment

The six faded letters are all that remain, and few people notice them. I would never have seen them if a friend hadn’t pointed them out to me while we walked through New Orleans’s French Quarter. I certainly wouldn’t have realized their significance.

On Chartres Street, above a beautifully arched doorway, is a curious and enigmatic inscription: “CHANGE.” Now part of the facade of the Omni Royal Orleans Hotel, the letters mark the onetime site of the St. Louis Hotel & Exchange, where, under the building’s famed rotunda, enslaved people were once sold.

All human landscapes are embedded with cultural meaning. And since we rarely consider our constructions as evidence of our priorities, beliefs and behaviors, the testimonies our landscapes offer are more honest than many of the things we intentionally present.

Our built environment, in other words, is a kind of societal autobiography, writ large.

Several years ago, I began to photographically document vestiges of racism, oppression and segregation in America’s built and natural environments — lingering traces that were hidden in plain sight behind a veil of banality.

Some of the sites I found were unmarked, overlooked and largely forgotten: bricked-over “Colored” entrances to movie theaters, or walls built inside restaurants to separate nonwhite customers. Other photographs capture the Black institutions that arose in response to racial segregation: a Negro league stadium in Michigan, a hotel for Black travelers in Mississippi. And a handful of the photographs depict the sites where Black people were attacked, killed or abducted — some marked and widely known, some not.

Editor's Note: as the author notes, the visual is a key part of the story – please view these images on the Times' website if you want to know more. 

Read entire article at New York Times