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Ginger Nolan, “Black Capitalism and the City: African American Insurance and the Actuarial Imagination”
SAH | Places Prize Lecture
Oct 20, 2023 (5:30pm)

Free; RSVP required

In partnership with the Society of Architectural Historians (SAH) and Places Journal, the Graham is pleased to present a new lecture by architectural historian Ginger Nolan, the inaugural recipient of the SAH | Places Prize on Race and the Built Environment, a unique collaboration between SAH and Places that supports the production of a major work of public scholarship that considers the history of race and the built environment through a contemporary lens.

Nolan’s talk explores how African American-owned insurance companies negotiated the (often vexed) aims of pursuing financial gain while also trying to create more equitable cities. For most of the twentieth century, these insurance companies controlled more wealth than any other African American enterprise and played an outsize role in shaping cities and suburbs. In efforts to reverse the effects of redlining, disinvestment, and segregation, these companies used housing developments and corporate architecture—including the first and only African American skyscraper—to redress discriminatory forms of urbanism and racial stereotypes. The talk will evaluate the urban and architectural interventions of African American insurance companies, using the companies' office buildings, housing developments, and mortgage-lending practices to engage debates around Black capitalism and Black Marxism. While recent scholarship has focused on the biopolitical tendencies of the white-owned insurance industry, the history of African American insurance demands a more subtle analytical framework, as these companies’ efforts vacillated between the biofinancial logics of actuarial techniques and, on the other hand, strategies of care and contestation.

Following the talk, architectural historian Charles L. Davis II will moderate a discussion with Nolan. Davis is an associate professor of architectural history and criticism at the University of Texas at Austin and chair of the SAH Race + Architectural History Affiliate Group.

SAH will host a reception at the Charnley-Persky House, located at 1365 N Astor St, immediately following the event.

This program is presented in partnership with the Chicago Architecture Biennial: CAB 5: This is a Rehearsal.

Ginger Nolan is an assistant professor of architectural history and theory at the University of Southern California. Her research explores relationships between architecture, media technologies, race, and governmentality. She has published through the University of Minnesota Press the books Savage Mind to Savage Machine: Racial Science and Twentieth-Century Design (2021) and The Neocolonialism of the Global Village (2018). She is currently researching race, actuarial thought, and urbanism, focusing on the role of twentieth-century African American insurance companies in shaping cities and suburbs in the United States. Her work has been recognized by the the Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst, Graham Foundation, Social Science Research Council, and the Terra Foundation. In 2013 Nolan was awarded the Carter Manny Writing Award by the Graham Foundation for her dissertation, “Savage Mind to Savage Machine: Techniques and Disciplines of Creativity, ca. 1880–1985.”

Founded in 1940, the Society of Architectural Historians is an international nonprofit membership organization that promotes the study, interpretation and conservation of architecture, design, landscapes and urbanism worldwide. SAH serves a network of local, national and international institutions and individuals who, by profession or interest, focus on the built environment and its role in shaping contemporary life. SAH promotes meaningful public engagement with the history of the built environment through advocacy efforts, print and online publications, and local, national and international programs.

Founded at MIT and Berkeley in 1983, Places Journal is an independent, nonprofit journal of public scholarship on architecture, landscape, and urbanism. Bridging from the university to the profession to the public, Places features scholars, journalists, designers, and artists who are responding to the profound challenges of our time: environmental health and structural inequity, climate crisis, resource scarcity, human migration, rapid technological innovation, and the erosion of the public sphere.

Established in 2021, the SAH | Places Prize was envisioned by Charles L. Davis II, associate professor of architectural history and criticism at the University at Buffalo, SUNY, and cochair of the SAH Race + Architectural History Affiliate Group. The winner of the SAH | Places Prize receives an honorarium to produce a major work of public scholarship to be presented as a public lecture through the Society of Architectural Historians and published in Places Journal.

SAH Race + Architectural History Affiliate Group was established by the Society of Architectural Historians in 2019 to promote research activities that analyze the racial discourses of architectural history, past and present. The group aims to create a platform for existing and new scholarship in the field; to reach new publics for this work; and to develop mentorships and networking opportunities for graduate students and junior scholars.

Image: Construction site, Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Home Office Building, Los Angeles, ca.1948, designed by the office of Paul Williams. Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company records (Collection 1434). UCLA Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, University of California, Los Angeles, Box 61, Folder 11