This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Bennie G. Thompson Academic & Civil Rights Research Center at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi, designed by Duvall Decker Architects. Congressman Thompson, an alumnus of Tougaloo, has represented Mississippi’s Second District for 28 years; he is currently chairing the House January 6th Committee investigating the insurrection and attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Events such as January 6, 2021, remind us of the power of political rhetoric. Four days before his assassination at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. politicized rhetoric of a different sort. In his “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution” speech at Washington, D.C.’s National Cathedral, he made more eloquent the words of the 19th-century American abolitionist Theodore Parker: “We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”
On June 25, 1966, Dr. King, John Lewis, and other luminaries of the civil rights movement walked with James Meredith’s “March Against Fear” through Tougaloo’s ceremonial entrance; the college invited the protesters to rest at the campus before the march’s conclusion the following day, when approximately 15,000 mostly Black civil rights champions protested at Mississippi’s Capitol, in Jackson. Bennie Thompson, an undergraduate majoring in political science at the time, met Dr. King that day.
In 2011, several of the remaining leaders of the civil rights era gathered to commemorate the opening of the Thompson Center, among them the great Lewis, then a U.S. congressman. Three years later, many of the same leaders came together at the center to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Freedom Summer, credited with President Johnson’s promoting and signing the Civil Rights Act; the later event was planned and designed in Duvall Decker’s office.
Duval Decker’s Thompson Center is about “remaining awake” architecturally, as many of us wait for that long arc to bend toward justice. One of the thorniest challenges confronting Anne Marie Duvall and Roy Decker, both of whom are white, was their place of origin: it was neither Jackson, which is 80% Black, nor Mississippi. Decker grew up in New Jersey, and Duvall is from western Tennessee. This would be no easy passage. It required trust-building across time and racial, cultural, and socioeconomic boundaries, into a place apart.
During the past two decades, Duvall Decker Architects has traversed its own lengthy arc, largely owing to a significant portion of the firm’s widely varied client base being committed to issues of social justice and racial equity. More than a third of Duvall Decker’s institutional work is with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Moreover, the bulk of their work for school districts, both urban and rural, is with communities of color or for economically disadvantaged communities.
The principals’ natural predilection helped them empathize with clients for whom an architecture of pedimented, white-columned porticos was anathema, a sign of America’s “original sin.” The relation of their clients to the larger body politic created an unexpected opportunity for the architects: their rejection of design tropes easily associated with the oppression of America’s underclass appealed to clients inherently open to progressive agendas, in contrast to what one tends to encounter in the architecture culture of Mississippi’s capital city.
Duvall Decker’s initial work at Tougaloo was to complete the college’s campus master plan and assess its library, a Brutalist building designed by the Latvian/American architect Gunnar Birkerts. The library is one of three remaining Birkerts buildings that were part of his ambitious masterplan, which largely would have obliterated all traces of the campus’s physical history. The Birkerts library and dormitories are cheek-by-jowl with the Thompson Center, creating a site conditioned by a complex amalgam of architectures, from Antebellum to Heroic Modern.
The center’s organization is deceptively simple: a three-sided courtyard building, common enough to American and British college campuses. Yet the U-shaped plan is turned 90 degrees to the main green; its long brick masonry flank on the east, opposite the green, is faced with a deep porch that screens the masses behind. The lower flanking mass is pinched off from the building’s taller corner that anchors Thompson to the greater campus, announcing the point of entrance.
The porch is a widely recognized symbol of everyday life of the South, as well as its spiritual and political culture. At Tougaloo, this device carries even greater weight. During Jim Crow and especially after World War II, a myth persisted that the porch remained one of the few quasi-public places where Blacks could assemble relatively free from reprisal. The history of lynching across the South tells a different story, however, one in which safe havens were few and acts of arbitrary violence common. Thompson’s deep east-facing porch, conversely, invites occasional gatherings, much as the building’s interior passages create occupiable edges. Owing to its material, configuration, and orientation, the porch remains cooler than its surroundings, welcoming the students who linger there in comfort.
Thompson’s main mass is chopped into three distinct pieces. The connectors, dressed in bead-blasted aluminum, are different materially, formally, and spatially from the principally brick and reinforced concrete main building. Each differs in size and proportion; one fits gently into the two volumes it bridges, while the second seems purposely oversized, elbowing for room. The connector’s interior walls are imprinted with photographs from Tougaloo’s archival collection of civil rights–era events on its campus. Photo enlargements, strategically located at moments of architectural discontinuity, operate as compressed memory theaters wherein students, faculty, staff, and visitors invariably pause, associating the images with the college’s storied past; they remain awake.
Duvall Decker designed Thompson as a conscious critique of the Boddie Mansion—the nucleus of the former plantation on which the college is built, and now central to the campus—eschewing easy and familiar organizational tactics such as centrality and a dominant axis, common to campus architecture of the region. Contrary to the mansion, the architecture of Thompson prompts (and often requires) one to move along its edges—one passes obliquely through the main entrance. Duvall Decker achieves this by creating occupiable edges (some with built-in seating) and passages of copious girth that invite moments of pause in areas where one expects movement. Moreover, the architecture nudges one from the smartphone trance of constant distraction in which much of the post-Boomer generation tend to dwell, into a state of spatial consciousness. Beyond the mere visual, these liminal moments of passage allow students to engage haptically with the building.
Both the east-facing porch and the courtyard frame distinct views of the mansion. The courtyard may offer the best means by which to apprehend the critique of axis and centrality from within the building, looking out. Interior vantage points afford multiple, complex prospects, back into various parts of Thompson, to the mansion, and to fragments of the Birkerts dormitories. As seen from its generous corridor in which the architecture prompts one to dwell, the keen-eyed idler is awakened to the long and complex history of this site, and to ask: What precisely is this a site of? What stories dwell here?
A decade after the center’s inauguration, the Boddie Mansion remains vacant, devoid of quotidian life. Dr. Beverly Wade Hogan, the college president, has expressed interest in using it for her office and as an interpretive center. That it has remained unoccupied at the campus’s center for so long, however, may signal that an “empty program” may be most fitting for an architectural signpost to a tragic past not yet wholly in the past.
Duvall Decker’s long arc of practice has developed in a nuanced cultural landscape that is far from black and white. The architecture of the firm’s center at Tougaloo reminds us of this. It is about remaining awake to the memory of the hundreds of enslaved peoples who worked the Boddie Plantation and places far larger, across Mississippi and the South; the 15,000 whose names we do not know, who marched from Memphis to Mississippi’s Capitol; and to the memories of Medgar Evers, Representative Lewis, Dr. King, and the all of the surviving witnesses to much of this history, including James Meredith and Bennie Thompson. Because the stewards of Tougaloo, and its architects, understood that to build in a particular place is to construct in time and in history, the Thompson Center has become part of this larger story of a site whose history is not yet written. Here, architecture continues the ongoing construction of a place, grounded in the sedimentation of time and events while pointing to something new yet to come.
The author extends his thanks to Jori Erdman and Reed Kroloff for editing various versions of this text, which summarizes a small portion of a monograph project on the work of Duvall Decker Architects, edited by Dodds and Erdman. Main image of the Thompson Center taken by Timothy Hursely. All photos courtesy of Duvall Decker Architects.