March 28, 2022

People Saving Places: Ujijji Davis Williams and Sharing Black History Through Public Spaces

All around us, people are saving historic places. Whether they are community activists, grassroots advocates, architects, or formally trained preservationists, they each bring with them a passion for the past and a drive to protect the cultural heritage all around us. During Women’s History Month—and as part of our campaign for Where Women Made History—we are interviewing five women who illustrate the many ways we can protect historic spaces. In this interview we hear from Ujijji Davis Williams, a landscape architect committed to the preservation of Black history.

Ujijji Davis Williams is a practicing landscape architect, urban planner, and researcher, and the founding partner of JIMA studio, a landscape architectural design and planning studio based in Detroit. Williams has led landscape and design work across the country from neighborhood planning to designing greenways and streetscapes at post-industrial cities across the country. In 2019 Williams received the 2019 National ASLA Bradford Williams Medal of Excellence for her design literature, and in 2020 she received the Michigan ASLA Emerging Professional of the Year Award.

Williams is also one of the thought leaders acting as an advisor for the Sojourner Truth Project, a collaborative effort between the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, the Summit Suffrage Centennial Committee, Summit Metro Parks, and the United Way of Summit & Medina in Akron, Ohio, with support from the Knight Foundation. This project will include a statue created by noted African American artist and Akron native Woodrow Nash and will be dedicated to the esteemed abolitionist and orator on the site of her 1851 speech to the Women’s Conference in Akron.

Listen to Ujijji Davis Williams describe her work to preserve—and commemorate—Black landscapes and stories in the United States.

In Her Own Words

My name is Ujijji Davis Williams, and I am a landscape architect and urban planner based in Detroit, Michigan.

My favorite site of cultural heritage ... I do not think I can pick just one. So I will say as a bucket, I believe I have a strong affinity for Olmstedian landscapes. I started my career at Central Park, and so I had a lot of time there. I actually also went to elementary, middle, and high school pretty much right next door to Central Park. So, I spent a lot of time, my youth there after school, during school as well. I also got engaged in Prospect Park, and probably dated my husband, had a lot of dates, at Belle Isle Park in Detroit.

I've had a lot of relationship building in an Olmstedian Landscape, and so I would have to pick that as a theme, more than a specific place.

A preservation project that I am working on right now that inspires me is the Sojourner Truth monument looking to be sited in Akron, Ohio. It is a historic location where Sojourner Truth gave a very historic speech for Black women's rights. And one, I think that Sojourner Truth has a very powerful story. She was a brilliant orator and liberator by the work that she was doing.

Headshot of a woman in grey.

photo by: Ujijji Davis Williams

Ujijji Davis Williams

Being able to contribute to a monument space in which she would be commemorated is important to me as a Black woman, and as a Black woman continuing to advocate for inclusive spaces, as that is very much what she was looking to do at the time. So, I do see this project as a full-circle moment for myself being able to implement that just in a different method than she might have done back in her day.

As a landscape architect and urban designer, one of the biggest challenges that I'm seeing right now with preservation is the question of—for who?

I think that historically in the United States, a lot of the winners have always been able to tell the history and that has helped to populate, or decorate different places, different cities, with statues, memorials, etc.

Now that we are in a moment of reckoning, with a lot of focus or refocus, centering around what a diverse community, a diverse country looks like, and how do we elevate the different cultures that have contributed to this country. That also means telling full truths about the people that we've been honoring for years.

A view of a pathway through a set of trees in a park in Detroit, Michigan.

photo by: Michigan State Historic Preservation Office via Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Belle Isle Park in Detroit, Michigan.

I think that that is a bit of a challenge in trying to balance the narrative in a way that tells a full story, that helps to commemorate people that might have not been highlighted or have intentionally been silenced from history, as well as then making sure that people who have differing relationships with history feel, a common sense of ground coming together to kind of understand the different footprints of our country.

What makes me excited about my current preservation work is really the opportunity to work on sites that are significant for Black—African American—people in the United States. When that's around people, events, markers, really thinking about how do we begin to elevate those narratives that have either been lost, or intentionally silenced, and giving the opportunity for all people to immerse themselves in that history by way of a public space through placemaking. And so, I'm really excited about being able to contribute to that facet of preservation work, as well as that facet of landscape architecture.

Donate Today to Help Save the Places Where Our History Happened.

Donate to the National Trust for Historic Preservation today and you'll help preserve places that tell our stories, reflect our culture, and shape our shared American experience.

While her day job is the associate director of content at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Priya spends other waking moments musing, writing, and learning about how the public engages and embraces history.

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