Image 1: Gatson and his graduate student collaborators examine archival photos with Natalie Pass-Miller (third from left) at the Magnolia House. 2: Students spent the day collecting memories and photos from older local residents at the house and a nearby library. Hands-on, community-engaged work is a hallmark of the Department of History’s master’s in museum studies program. 3: The Fall 1956 Green Book. Photos predate the COVID-19 pandemic. See more on UNCG Research Flickr.
The front porch of a Southern home BA/C – before the advent of air conditioning – was as necessary for livability as a roof and window screens. This was true regardless of race or income. Useful in all seasons, the porch in summer was a place of cool respite for Black and White, rich and poor.
But the porch was particularly important, Gatson says, for those living in shotgun houses, some of the most modest Southern homes.
He and Dr. Asha Kutty, his colleague in UNCG’s Interior Architecture Department, are studying porches in a shotgun house community in Wilson, North Carolina. As late as 1988, the East Wilson Historic District had more than 300 of those houses. Most were built in the first four decades of the 20th century. Today the historically African American neighborhood has fewer than 90.
Five belong to Wilson native and UNCG graduate student Monica Therisa Davis. She and a partner are restoring them as tiny houses. Once an economic necessity, compact homes are now trendy.
Gatson and Kutty will collect oral histories from current and former residents to gain an understanding of what transpired on the porch, a transition zone between the public street and the private interior, and what that meant.
“The porch evolved to serve as a catalyst, a spearhead for community and culture,” Gatson says.
The work combines two of Gatson’s passions, public history and historic preservation, and he’s delighted to be working with Kutty. The pairing of a historian and an architect to explore this aspect of African American culture, he says, should result in “some truly unique work and rich perspective.”
From 1619 onward, they constructed exquisite furniture, sewed fine garments, forged iron, worked leather and tin, and built seagoing vessels in the Southern states. Free or enslaved, Black craftspeople were highly regarded for the quality of their handiwork.
Examples of the artisans’ creations that survive today – such as furniture by Thomas Day, the free Black North Carolina craftsman – are prized by museums and collectors. But Day, who remains well-known 150 years after his death, is an exception among Black craftspeople of that era. Far too many of his peers remain largely unknown.
The Black Craftspeople Digital Archive, or BCDA, seeks to change that. Gatson is co-director of BCDA. The initiative, which seeks to identify and celebrate Black craftspeople of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, was founded by his colleague Dr. Tiffany Momon, a public historian currently at Sewanee, the University of the South.
In June, BCDA’s Instagram account grew from around 400 followers to nearly 20,000 in a matter of weeks, thanks in part to mentions on some highly trafficked websites. The surge, Gatson says, was a complete shock.” This September, he and Momon launched the BCDA website.
“We know the South was built off of the hands of labor,” Gatson says. “But those skilled craftspeople haven’t been given the full weight and magnitude of attention that is warranted. I’m really honored to work on a project like this.”