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Slavery and Central Park

Posted On August 22, 2019 | 13:46 pm | by ostmannj01 | Permalink
Sara Zewde assesses the legacy of a founding figure in landscape architecture

Sara Zewde, founding principal of design firm Studio Zewde, was a recent Mellon Fellow in Urban Landscape Studies. Her Mellon Midday Dialogue, “Cotton Kingdom, Now,” mapped a project to revisit Frederick Law Olmsted’s writing on slavery and physically retrace his travels in the 19th-century American South. 


Q&A with Sara Zewde 

Who was Frederick Law Olmsted, and why should landscape architecture pay attention to his history with slavery? 

Everyone in landscape architecture studies Frederick Law Olmsted. The discipline historicizes him as the father of American landscape architecture. Whenever I’m giving a lecture to a landscape architecture audience, I often ask, “who here is familiar with Frederick Law Olmsted?” Most people raise their hands. Then I ask, “who here knows that Olmsted traveled the antebellum South for two years and was writing a key abolitionist text while working on Central Park?” Few, if any, will raise their hands.

But it turns out Olmsted’s writing made a major contribution to the historicization of slavery. One historian wrote that Olmsted is actually the most cited witness to 19th-century slavery in the American South, in part due to his documentarian writing style and the breadth and duration of his travels. He wrote a lot in dialogue, often between himself and enslaved people. Olmsted’s writing influenced capital-H History’s acceptance of the South during that period as being fiercely, and primarily, shaped by the enslavement of Black people.

Throughout his youth, it’s clear in Olmsted’s correspondence that one of the major issues in his mind was the pitfalls of a slaveholding society. Based on his reputation writing about England and the benefits of public land, Olmsted was asked by what’s now the New York Times to travel the slave states and write dispatches about the conditions of slavery for a largely abolitionist-leaning audience. After his articles appeared in the newspaper, Olmsted revised and published three volumes of the dispatches. In 1861, a few weeks before the Civil War began, Olmsted republished them in a volume called The Cotton Kingdom, with the most staunchly antislavery position he had taken to date. I’m focusing on that publication, retracing the steps and geography he laid out, including DC, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and east Texas. I’ll visit the places he went to, take stock of what they look like today, and talk to people who are the parallels of those he spoke with 165 years ago.

In The Cotton Kingdom, Olmsted contemplates the efforts our society needs to make in order to overcome the “stain of slavery.” The period when he was traveling, writing, rewriting, publishing, and republishing this question overlapped with what scholars consider the invention of American landscape architecture: Olmsted entering the design competition for Central Park in New York (with Calvert Vaux), winning the competition, being hired as the park’s chief architect, and overseeing the start of construction. So he was traveling the most rural, poorest parts of the country and simultaneously designing what’s now probably one of the highest value urban landscapes in the world. That dissonance preoccupied Frederick Law Olmsted as he formed the “new art” of landscape architecture in America.


How does your research change the way we might engage with urban landscapes today, an aim of the Mellon Initiative in Urban Landscape Studies?

Our moment today has a lot of parallels to 165 years ago: issues about immigration; rapid urbanization; political, social, and economic stratification; an ecological crisis. (The impact of cotton on the ecology of the South, especially in the Mississippi River Valley, was something of a crisis.) Returning to this part of landscape architectural history could give us perspective on the practice of landscape architecture and its relevance today.

For example, before Olmsted traveled the South, he went to England and saw the country’s first public park, Birkenhead Park. He wondered how America, ostensibly founded on the values of democracy, didn’t have anything similar. He argued that beauty is something everyone should have in their lives. I think that’s such an important point. Sometimes we feel like a beautiful park is not enough to affect people’s lives in a real way. My research reaffirms the idea—Olmsted's idea—that having shade, somewhere to sit, and a beautiful place to be are all important things in the conversation around democracy and equity. 

What lessons do you take as a landscape architect from Olmsted’s political engagement?

Our discipline tends to divide into two camps: design that is seen as pure and apolitical, and design that is concerned about politics, ecology, etc. But being interested in one doesn’t mean that you’re uninterested in the other. My research acknowledges that the legacy of Olmsted’s work is also political. A founding figure in the formation of American landscape architecture worked actively on societal issues. The explicit interface of beauty, design, and political engagement is central to our discipline. 


Julia Ostmann is postgraduate writing and reporting fellow at Dumbarton Oaks. Photo by Elizabeth Muñoz Huber, postgraduate digital media fellow.