The Southern Porch as a ‘Sacred Stoop’

Germane Barnes on the porch of 1300 Campo Sano. Photo: Evan Garcia/UM News. 

By Barbara Gutierrez

Germane Barnes on the porch of 1300 Campo Sano. Photo: Evan Garcia/UM News. 

The Southern Porch as a ‘Sacred Stoop’

By Barbara Gutierrez
A University of Miami lecturer explores the role of the front porch in black communities.

For Germane Barnes, the front porch on his family’s Chicago’s West Side home brings mostly good memories of leisurely afternoons and evenings spent conversing with neighbors, watching motorists show off their fancy wheels, and waving to high schoolers who were walking to prom dressed to impress. 

But when he was 16 years old, Barnes, now a lecturer at the University of Miami’s School of Architecture, was arrested off that same porch and held for three hours in a cold, adult cell. It was a case of mistaken identity and Barnes was released unharmed. But he has always thought that the porch held an important role in the African-American community.

“You cannot not know your neighbors when you use the porch,” said Barnes, who is African-American and grew up admiring the houses designed by famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Sitting on the porch to catch a breeze was a staple of American life, particularly in the South. And, unlike the experience Barnes had in his teens, for many African-Americans, the porch became a safe space during the years of Jim Crow laws, which enforced racial segregation, said Barnes.

He recently received a grant from the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts to study these structures that played such a crucial role in establishing and developing a sense of identity for community members.

“Architecture and identity go hand in hand,” said Barnes. ”But I wanted to see if I could look at the porch in the black communities through a lens of racial, social and housing inequities.”

Of course, porches have been around for a long time. They are “ubiquitous building elements across the globe’s tropical belt,” said Sonia Chao, research assistant professor and director of UM’s Center for Urban and Community Design. Aside from making a sweltering summer day tolerable, the porch opened a window into the surrounding neighborhood.

Through his research, Barnes hopes to show how the porch became a “sacred stoop” in the many communities created after millions of African-Americans fled the South for the North, Midwest and West in the Great Migration that followed the abolition of slavery.

“The porch became a battleground,” said Barnes. “It was a place that allowed you to do things in your own home without costing you. It was also not completely private as it was outside, where the police could still accost you or random individuals could berate you with racial slurs.”

Therefore, in cities like Detroit, Atlanta and even Washington, D.C., the porch became a classroom, a barbershop, a small library, a laundromat, depending on the community’s needs.

Barnes has a year to carry out his research in five cities – Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, Houston and Washington, D.C. – and will interview academics, community leaders and area residents. These include Emmanuel Pratt in Chicago, an urban farmer who is revitalizing marginalized neighborhoods in the city’s South Side with interdisciplinary programs that mix art, architecture and community development.

Barnes knows about revitalization. He spent years in Opa-locka as a designer-in-residence leading a revitalization process that blended art and architecture. As part of his research, he is also visiting Howard University in Washington, D.C., where an area called “The Porch” is the hub of student life.

As he searches for the history of porches, Barnes is up against a pending threat. He hopes to interview people who still live in shotgun and row houses throughout the South, a “typology that is intrinsically black,” said Barnes. “But many of these neighborhoods are being gentrified.”

His hope is to reach these areas and residents before they are gone. Barnes also hopes that his research will yield an exhibition and a book on southern porches, a subject that has not been explored before.