Landscape Architecture Symposium Focuses on African American Burial Grounds and Cemeteries

This is a view of East Mountain Cemetery, a largely forgotten and ignored landscape a few blocks east of the downtown Fayetteville square.
Ken McCown

This is a view of East Mountain Cemetery, a largely forgotten and ignored landscape a few blocks east of the downtown Fayetteville square.

The virtual symposium "Revealing Fayetteville - A New Landscape," planned for Monday, Nov. 2, will explore the history and landscape architecture practices of African American burial grounds and cemeteries before and after Emancipation.

It is being hosted by the Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design, in collaboration with the U of A Office for Diversity and Inclusion.

The symposium is scheduled from noon to 3:30 p.m. Nov 2, and it will be held through the Zoom online platform. It will include a question and answer session for participants. To register, complete the registration form on Zoom.

The symposium will inform work being done this semester in the "Engaging Site, Engaging Place" design studio that incorporates advocacy and theory. The studio is led by Phillip Zawarus, the school's 2020 Verna C. Garvan Distinguished Visiting Professor in Landscape Architecture. Ken McCown, professor and department head of landscape architecture, and Jim Coffman, visiting assistant professor, are co-teaching the studio with Zawarus.

The final Garvan studio project this semester will focus on East Mountain Cemetery, a largely forgotten and ignored landscape a few blocks east of the downtown Fayetteville square. The cemetery, which dates from 1838 to the 1920s, is the final resting place for white settlers, enslaved people and at least two known African Americans buried in the 1920s. The Northwest Arkansas African American Heritage Association holds the deed to the cemetery, which covers a little over an acre and contains many marked and unmarked graves.

This symposium is intended to help design students and the broader community learn about the history of African American burial grounds and cemeteries established before and after Emancipation, explore case studies in university partnership on cemeteries, and understand the practice of landscape architecture in African American memorial landscapes.

"As a national leader in architecture and design education, the Fay Jones School's intrinsic commitment to addressing imperative issues of society through architecture and design underlies our work in teaching, learning, outreach and public service," observed Peter MacKeith, dean of the school. "The Department of Landscape Architecture prepares its students for lives and careers devoted to design engagement and advocacy in the communities of the state, region and nation. This year's Garvan Symposium intensifies that commitment and that focus by examining an important narrative of the city of Fayetteville and Northwest Arkansas - the multiple narratives of the East Mountain Cemetery, in fact - and emphasizing to our community and a larger audience the important narrative of the African American experience in all communities."

Cemeteries in general comprise some of the most essential information recorded about the life of a person, family, and also of a community, said Sharon Killian, a local artist who is president of both the Northwest Arkansas African American Heritage Association and Art Ventures NWA. Common writing found on markers are the names and dates of birth and death of the interred. Everything about the marker and its placement, including the type of stone used, can provide information about the individual's social class and familial relationships, as well as their relationship to the community.

"Exploring African American burial sites and cemeteries to learn with a focus on truth will fill in the gaps of American history that have been obscured or destroyed for centuries," Killian said. "Filling these gaps will help lead us to heal what will otherwise remain an open wound in the culture and psyche of the American community."

Killian was referred to the Department of Landscape Architecture for assistance on two issues related to the cemetery, Coffman said. The first was to creatively address the unchecked erosion that was threatening the integrity of many known and unknown burial sites, and the second was to give form and expression to the sense that this site could transcend its hidden and disturbing history to become a place of gathering, joy and celebration.

"Fundamentally, this project will fully engage students in a landscape, history and current culture that is often concealed, while giving them an ability to work closely with stakeholders to transform the site for a more hopeful and happy future," Coffman said.

This symposium will provide a way for students and community stakeholders to gain broader and deeper perspectives around how communities and institutions can work together on unique places and issues, McCown said.

"These perspectives can help to provide design solutions that are not 'cookie-cutter,' but instead celebrate the novelty and authenticity of forgotten and shared histories revealed by places," he said.

This symposium is a convening of voices that will help students, faculty and the larger community know better how to prepare for their journey in recapturing this particular place and weaving it into the fabric of Fayetteville.

"What should we know and expect? What questions do we need to ask to best serve the families and people connected to this site and project a future for it to be an important component of the cultural landscape of Fayetteville?" McCown said.

Good design is always related to good inquiry, McCown said. Asking the right questions and probing questions provide an agenda for analysis and action, which are essential components in design education. This symposium will reveal to students the history of this type of place.

"History is a preeminent component of the design process," he said. "How we tell those stories through our places reveals our cultures and communities as a lens and a mirror."

Designers are increasingly becoming co-creators with their communities, he added.

"They bring technical knowledge and pair it with community expertise to provide context-sensitive solutions and potentially long-term partnerships," McCown said.

In addition to Killian, the symposium panelists will include Lynn Rainville, Ph.D., the inaugural Director of Institutional History at Washington and Lee University, in Lexington, Virginia; Katherine Ambroziak, Associate Professor and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Research in the School of Architecture at The University of Tennessee, Knoxville; and Elizabeth Kennedy, founder and principal at EKLA PLLC in Brooklyn, New York.

Rainville, who has a background in archaeology, anthropology and history, will help provide the broader history and cultural context of African American and slave cemeteries. Ambroziak will use her ongoing work with the Odd Fellows Cemetery in Knoxville, Tennessee, to demonstrate how communities can work with anchor institutions such as a university to build capacity for action in planning and design in cemetery sites. Kennedy, whose firm has received awards for excellence in design, preservation and sustainable site design, will discuss the practice of landscape architecture in the context of African American memorials.

Zawarus, this semester's Garvan chair, is an assistant professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He brings knowledge and expertise in the field of landscape architecture analysis, synthesis and design through performative metrics and dynamic visualizations of qualitative and quantitative information. He uses advanced computational modeling and fabrication methods to evaluate and visualize desert ecosystem services for strategic development and communication of social and environmental design. 


Michelle Parks, director of communications
Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design


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