Architecture Student Crafts Thesis to Preserve Black History

KENNESAW, Ga. | Feb 15, 2021

Olivia Harrell
Olivia Harrell

A Savannah native, Kennesaw State University student Olivia Harrell grew up marveling at the architectural beauty of her city’s most historic buildings, including the Cathedral Basilica of St. John the Baptist and SCAD’s Ruskin Hall.

When she ventured away from downtown to the area bordering Savannah’s urban core, however, she often left disappointed in the lack of attention paid toward saving the history of its predominantly African American communities. Now a fifth-year architecture student in Kennesaw State’s College of Architecture and Construction Management, Harrell is using her thesis to explore how Black history in Savannah can be preserved for years to come.

“Despite the fact Savannah is predominantly African American, you don’t see many remnants of our history when you walk through town,” she said. “My goal is to draw on that history and make sure it is presented in a respectful way.”

Harrell’s thesis focuses on memorial architecture, which often takes the form of a monument or structure to commemorate a person or group of people. Drawing from her own experiences growing up in Savannah, she sought a way to incorporate the city’s Black history from the time slave ships arrived in the port of Savannah all the way through the trials and tribulations that extend to the modern era. As part of her project, Harrell proposes an interconnected network of underground tunnels that mirror the existing urban fabric above, allowing visitors to walk and experience different periods of Savannah’s history while retracing the footsteps of those who came before them.

For her research and presentation skills, Harrell was recently awarded the People’s Choice Award and finished second in the Department of Architecture’s Cooper Carry Three Minute Thesis Competition. KSU is unique in that it is one of only a handful of programs nationwide that requires its students to pursue thesis projects while earning a professional architecture degree.

Though architecture was her first love, Harrell initially chose to become a scholarship athlete at two separate universities until a broken hip sustained during basketball practice sidelined her indefinitely. She would return home and enroll in a local college before ultimately deciding to pick up architecture once again by applying to KSU.

“I had time to reflect on the fact that my passion still remained with architecture, but I was really focused on making sure that I could make a difference,” Harrell said. “In particular, I wanted to find a way to enact change in my community and for minorities through an architectural lens.”

The thesis process at KSU presented the perfect opportunity to leave her own mark on architecture, she added. Unlike her earlier studio courses where students might be expected to complete similar projects, students are generally given the freedom to pursue whatever project they can conceive, often drawing on personal experiences for inspiration.

“I’ve enjoyed the thesis process because I can take it whatever direction suits me,” she said. “This is something that will always be meaningful to me.”

– Travis Highfield

Photos by Jason Getz

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A leader in innovative teaching and learning, Kennesaw State University offers undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees to its more than 45,000 students. Kennesaw State is a member of the University System of Georgia with 11 academic colleges. The university’s vibrant campus culture, diverse population, strong global ties and entrepreneurial spirit draw students from throughout the country and the world. Kennesaw State is a Carnegie-designated doctoral research institution (R2), placing it among an elite group of only 7 percent of U.S. colleges and universities with an R1 or R2 status. For more information, visit