Black architects have a rich American history

1800 design by Louis Metoyer
Sun, 1785-05-29

On this date, we celebrate African American architecture. Blacks have been involved in building and architecture since the colonial era of America.

The plantation system relied heavily on slave craftsmen imported 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 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.

A number of free Blacks also designed and built in the antebellum South. Charles, a free Black carpenter, wood worker, and 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 African-American activity in building and construction came to an abrupt halt after the 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.

Until the 20th century, the United States education became more formalized, making it 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 African-Americans, 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. Paul 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. Williams also designed the Los Angeles Airport restaurant (Shown). 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 returning 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 form Philadelphia, established a landmark affirmative action program which 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 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 remain 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.

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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