Duvall Decker Architects’ Thompson Center and the Long Arc of Practice

By George Dodds
Common Edge
Nov. 22, 2021

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Bennie G. Thompson Academic & Civil Rights Research Center at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi, designed by Duvall Decker Architects. Congressman Thompson, an alumnus of Tougaloo, has represented Mississippi’s Second District for 28 years; he is currently chairing the House January 6th Committee investigating the insurrection and attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Events such as January 6, 2021, remind us of the power of political rhetoric. Four days before his assassination at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. politicized rhetoric of a different sort. In his “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution” speech at Washington, D.C.’s National Cathedral, he made more eloquent the words of the 19th-century American abolitionist Theodore Parker: “We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”

On June 25, 1966, Dr. King, John Lewis, and other luminaries of the civil rights movement walked with James Meredith’s “March Against Fear” through Tougaloo’s ceremonial entrance; the college invited the protesters to rest at the campus before the march’s conclusion the following day, when approximately 15,000 mostly Black civil rights champions protested at Mississippi’s Capitol, in Jackson. Bennie Thompson, an undergraduate majoring in political science at the time, met Dr. King that day.

In 2011, several of the remaining leaders of the civil rights era gathered to commemorate the opening of the Thompson Center, among them the great Lewis, then a U.S. congressman. Three years later, many of the same leaders came together at the center to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Freedom Summer, credited with President Johnson’s promoting and signing the Civil Rights Act; the later event was planned and designed in Duvall Decker’s office.

Duval Decker’s Thompson Center is about “remaining awake” architecturally, as many of us wait for that long arc to bend toward justice. One of the thorniest challenges confronting Anne Marie Duvall and Roy Decker, both of whom are white, was their place of origin: it was neither Jackson, which is 80% Black, nor Mississippi. Decker grew up in New Jersey, and Duvall is from western Tennessee. This would be no easy passage. It required trust-building across time and racial, cultural, and socioeconomic boundaries, into a place apart.

During the past two decades, Duvall Decker Architects has traversed its own lengthy arc, largely owing to a significant portion of the firm’s widely varied client base being committed to issues of social justice and racial equity. More than a third of Duvall Decker’s institutional work is with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Moreover, the bulk of their work for school districts, both urban and rural, is with communities of color or for economically disadvantaged communities.

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