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Sun, 05.29.1785

Black History and American Architecture, a story

NMAAHC Building, designed by Freelon Adjaye Bond Smith Group, architects

On this date, we affirm Black architecture.  African Americans have been involved in construction and architecture since the colonial era of America.

The American plantation system relied heavily on African slave craftsmen kidnapped from Africa. Written records and examination of many of these buildings, such as Magnolia in Plaquemine’s Paris in 1785, the Gippy Plantation, in South Carolina, Windsor Hall in Greenville, Georgia, indicate slave architectural involvement.  Some slave artisans were hired out to other owners such as James Bell of Virginia, who was sent to Alabama to construct three spiral staircases for the Watkins-Moore-Grayson mansion.  One of the more original stuctures designed and built by slaves was the Shotgun House.

A number of free Blacks also designed and built many homes in the Antebellum South. Charles, a free Black carpenter, woodworker, and brick mason, contracted with Robin de Logny in 1787 to build Destrehan Plantation in St. Charles Parish, LA.  Louis Metoyer studied architecture in Paris and designed the Melrose House in Isle Breville, LA. Blacks designed a number of other plantations throughout the confederacy. This period of Black activity in building and construction came to an abrupt halt after the American Civil War. Increasing industrialization, developing trade unions in the north that excluded Blacks, and the economic depression that accompanied Reconstruction largely eliminated the independent Black artisan.  As 20th-century American education became more formalized, it became more difficult for a craftsman to build a structure independently though no formal licensing or professional identification was yet instituted.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) formed the first formal architecture program in 1867. One year later, the Freedmen’s Bureau founded Hampton Institute to train Blacks, including many former slaves. This program was the curriculum model for the Tuskegee Institute. Many early, recognized Black architects began their careers through Tuskegee as students or as faculty; its department of Mechanical Industries was headed by Robert R. Taylor, one of the first Blacks to graduate from MIT.

Another Tuskegee professor was Wallace A. Rayfield, who designed many Black churches, including Ebenezer Baptist Church in Chicago and Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. In 1897, John A. Lankford established one of the first Black architectural offices in America in Washington, D.C.  He was a Tuskegee graduate and former superintendent of the Department of Mechanical Industries at Shaw University.  Lankford designed many office buildings and churches in the east and south. Also, the School of Architecture at Howard University was approved by the University Board of Trustees on February 9, 1911.

Other African American architects during the first half of the 20th century include George Washington Foster, Vertner Woodson Tandy, John Lewis Wilson, Julian Francis Abele, Paul Revere Williams, George Washington Smith.  Williams, though discouraged by his Los Angeles High School teacher, worked his way through the University of Southern California’s School of Architecture and went on to considerable fame.  He designed homes for Betty Grable, Frank Sinatra, Cary Grant, and many other Hollywood stars.  He also designed the Los Angeles Airport (LAX) Exposition Restaurant.  Clarence W. “Cap” Wigington became a renowned architect across the Midwestern United States in a time when there were few African American architects in the entire United States.  Wigington was the nation's first Black municipal architect, working for the city of Saint Paul, Minnesota for 34 years.

World War II had a great impact on African Americans in the Architectural profession. In 1941, the War Department awarded a $4.2 million contract to the Black firm, McKissack & McKissack for construction of the Tuskegee Air Base. Two years later, Williams’ organization, Allied Engineers Inc., received a $39 million contract to design the U.S. Naval Base at Long Beach. In addition, the GI Bill (1944) offered to return veterans opportunities for education in the field never before available, and the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling opened the doors of white schools to Black students.

In 1968, Whitney M. Young, Jr., civil rights leader, addressed the continued racism in the architecture profession when speaking at the national convention of the American Institute of Architects (AIA).  His speech caused the Ford Foundation to establish scholarships and the AIA itself created a task force on equal opportunity.  The recession of the mid-1970s hurt the entire architectural profession as did President Nixon’s freeze on construction of low-income housing. Soon after, William Coleman, a Black lawyer from Philadelphia, established a landmark affirmative action program that mandated that 15% of federal funds for mass transit projects be awarded to minority firms.

Unfortunately, withdrawal of federal support for low- and moderate-income housing under the Reagan and H.W. Bush presidencies set back the progress of the African American architectural community. In 1991, the directory of African American Registered Architects identified some 877 Black architects in 43 states. Of these, only 49 are women. In 1993, Black architects made up only 7.5% of the AIA. At present, the century-old vocational/professional split still harms Blacks in the architecture profession.  The division between design and production at the academic level remains true in large majority firms where larger numbers of Black architects work on the production or technical side of building rather than in the design studios.

As of 2013, fewer than 2 percent of the 105,000 licensed architects in the United States are African American, according to the National Association of Minority Architects (NOMA). Minority architects are rare at blue-chip architectural firms and seldom seen in senior management positions at these firms.  In the last decade, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) has teamed up with NOMA, other minority architectural groups, and schools of architecture at HBCU's. It recently partnered with the Girl Scouts to broaden the visibility of the profession and to attract more women, people of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds.

These efforts are a big series of steps to add more color to a profession that remains largely off the radar of many college-bound minorities.  In 2016, Phillip Freelon, designed the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C.  Also in 2018, the Legacy Museum from Enslavement to Incarceration opened.
To Become An Urban Planner
To Become an Architect
To become a construction worker



The Encyclopedia of African American Heritage
by Susan Altman
Copyright 1997, Facts on File, Inc. New York
ISBN 0-8160-3289-0

Richard K. Dozier, Arch.D. AIA
Professor of Architecture
School of Architecture Florida A&M University

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