OAH Distinguished Lecturer Profile

OAH Distinguished Lectureship program 40 years 1981-2021

Mabel O. Wilson

Portrait of Mabel O. Wilson
Image Credit: Justin Beck

Mabel O. Wilson, PhD. is the Nancy and George E Rupp Professor of Architecture, Planning and Preservation and a Professor in African American and African Diaspora Studies at Columbia University, where she also serves as the director of the Institute for Research in African American Studies. Wilson has authored Begin with the Past: Building the National Museum of African American History and Culture(2016), Negro Building: Black Americans in the World of Fairs and Museums (2012), and co-edited the volume Race and Modern Architecture: From the Enlightenment to Today (2020). With her practice Studio&, she was a member of the design team that recently completed the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers at the University of Virginia. Exhibitions of her work have been featured at SFMoMA, Venice Biennale, Art Institute of Chicago, Istanbul Design Biennale, Wexner Center for the Arts, the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum’s Triennial, the Storefront for Art and Architecture and SF Cameraworks. She is a founding member of Who Builds Your Architecture? (WBYA?)—an advocacy project to educate the architectural profession about the problems of globalization and labor. She is the co-host of the podcast Black Lives in the Era of COVID 19, a close look at the impact of the virus on New York City communities. For the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, she was co-curator of the exhibition Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America (2021).

Featured Lecture

OAH Lectures

The degradation, violence, and dehumanization of racialization threads through modernity—its subjectivities, social relations, politics, culture, capitalism, urbanism, architecture, and built environment, especially within institutions like universities that order all of these formations. Wilson will explore how the Memorial for Enslaved Labors at the University of Virginia engages the university’s hidden history of slavery. She shares how the memorial’s complicated design process and public dialogues wrestled with the legacy of anti-black racism in its remembrance of the pain of bondage and the dignity of this enslaved community. Her talk asks how commemoration can serve as a means of repair and care for those living in the slavery's wake?
The decades after the American Revolution form a critical moment during which the nation's civic architecture developed its particular stylistic character and symbolic significance. It was also in this period that notions of citizenship and the formation of the racial paradigm of human difference merged with myths of a bountiful continent that would nurture an American civilization, whose cultural values its new civic architecture was designed to symbolize. Paradoxically, enslaved blacks, defined solely as “property” lacking the faculties to be self-aware and self-possessed, built a significant number of the civic buildings designed by the nation’s first architects: Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Henry Latrobe, and William Thornton. The land—as property—on which the new nation’s civic buildings were erected had been taken from Native Americans by centuries of white settler colonialism and deadly forced removals. Wilson’s lecture explores how how race informed the discourses on slavery, nationalism, aesthetics, technology and architecture during this formative period.