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Freedom and Unfreedom: The Construction of Washington City in the District of Columbia

Thursday, March 7, 2024 at 5:15pm

Milstein Hall, Milstein Auditorium
943 University Ave, Ithaca, NY 14850, USA

An A.D. White Professors-at-Large keynote public event

Mabel O. Wilson (Columbia University; A.D. White Professor-at-Large at Cornell) will present, "Freedom and Unfreedom:  The Construction of Washington City in the District of Columbia," on Thursday, March 7, at 5:15pm, in Milstein Auditorium, Milstein Hall. A reception will follow in Milstein Hall Dome.

This event is part of an A.D. White Professors-at-Large (ADW-PAL) visit and is cosponsored by the College of Architecture, Art, and Planning (AAP).

AbstractIn March of 1792, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson hand wrote an advertisement that he sent to President George Washington and the three Commissioners charged with overseeing the construction of “Washington City in Territory of Columbia.” That announcement advertised a competition for designs of “The President’s House” (White House) and a “Capitol” (U.S. Capitol). All five of these men from Virginia and Maryland, were politicians, planters, and enslavers. Mabel O. Wilson’s lecture will examine how enslaved and free Blacks became essential for the construction of the new federal city, from clearing land to making bricks. This dependency continued after the government arrived in 1800, as a Black work force maintained the city and serviced its white population. Her talk will consider how Washington City’s captive Black population, one that lived intimately with white residents, became a source of financial investment and moral peril. She explores how Black residents–free and enslaved–exploited opportunities of urban life such as greater mobility and “living out” to abscond or to self-purchase. Lastly, how was freedom, spatial practices of liberation guaranteed politically, economically, and juridically, dependent on the unfreedom of Blacks in Washington City?

Bio: Professor Mabel O. Wilson is a multi-disciplinary professor and highly esteemed scholar of the American built environment whose research investigates the intersections between the built environment and Black culture and history. Since 2007, Wilson has held appointments at Columbia University in the departments of Architecture and African American and African Diaspora Studies. In 2020, Wilson was named as director of Institute for Research in African American Studies (IRAAS), also at Columbia. Since 2009, she has served as the co-director of Global Africa Lab (GAL), an innovative research initiative that explores the spatial topologies of the African continent and its diaspora. Wilson is also a founding member of Who Builds Your Architecture? (WBYA?), a coalition of architects, activists, educator, and scholars that examine the connections between labor, architecture and the global networks that form around building buildings.

Among her many accomplishments, Wilson co-curated a seminal exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in 2021, which showcased the work of African American and African Diasporic architects, the first exhibition of this kind in MoMA’s history. In addition, Wilson was awarded the National Building Museum’s Vince Scully Prize, which recognizes exemplary achievement in the built environment, also in 2021.

Wilson visits the Cornell campus in Ithaca as an ADW-PAL March 4-8. She was elected as an ADW-PAL in 2022. Her appointment runs through 2028.

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Cornell University College of Architecture, Art, and Planning, Professor-at-Large Program



Contact E-Mail

Contact Name

Cindy Greco


Mabel O. Wilson

Speaker Affiliation

Columbia University; ADW Professor-at-Large at Cornell

Dept. Web Site


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