Five Black Architects That Shaped America’s Architectural Legacy

Photo by Ryan Morris

These architects’ expertise, talent, and diligence undeniably laid the groundwork for today’s Black design professionals. And we are here to give our respects in honor of these people.

Black architects in this day and age were the fruit of the continuous fight for equality in the socio-political change in America. These pioneering individuals gave their blood, sweat, and tears to enjoy the same human rights as the rest of the nation born with that privilege.

Their beliefs, courage, and intelligence made gradual waves of change that shaped modern-day American society regarding infrastructure. The Black architects had already paved the way for the new generation to carry their legacy.

Here are some of the most remarkable black architects that left a lasting mark on the American Architectural scene, who were also industry leaders and powerful champions that advocated for equality in the profession.

1 – Robert Robinson Taylor

No aspiring young Black architect should ever forget this name. Born and raised in North Carolina, Robert Robinson Taylor worked as a carpenter and foreman for his father, a formerly enslaved person named Henry Taylor.

It’s important to note that Robert Robinson Taylor was the first ever academically trained and licensed Black architect in American history. He first attended university at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and became the school’s pioneering Black graduate.

During his university days, he met Booker T. Washington, who eventually got him to spearhead the industrial program and development of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. It is an African-American-only vocational school now deemed a National Historic Site.

Taylor designed over 25 buildings along the Tuskegee campus, including libraries, housing, museums, and other academic establishments throughout the United States. He also created architectural plans and developed industrial training programs at the Booker Washington Institute in Kakata, Liberia.

2 – Julian Abele

Julian Abele was also the first black architecture graduate at the University of Pennsylvania in 1902. During his whole career, Abele worked as a chief designer at a Philadelphia firm of Horace Trumbauer, a Gilded Age Architect.

Julian Abele was the chief designer of the Duke University West Campus, and they recognized his talent and that even his architectural designs were considered masterpieces. However, his firm had a strict policy of omitting individual signatures for all blueprints, so there needs to be more evidence of how much he worked on.

There’s also a certain level of irony that a Black architect designed a large part of Duke University, yet the school was one of the last laps in the desegregation race; since it was a whites-only school up until 1963. That same year, five Black students named Mary Harris, Gene Kendall, Wilhelmina Rueben-Cooke, Cassandra Smith Rush, and Nathaniel White enrolled at the institute.

3 – Paul Revere Williams

Paul Revere Williams designed more than 2,000 homes and is one of the icons shaping Southern California’s architectural landscape. In his 50-year career, Williams’ style had a distinct range of types and techniques, which can be seen in a few hotels and hospitals that he designed.

Paul Revere Williams graduated from the Beaux-Arts Institute of Design. Before starting his private practice, he enhanced his skills at many prominent firms in Los Angeles. In 1923, Paul Revere Williams became the first black member of the American Institute of Architects.

He designed many homes for high-profile celebrities, Desi Arnaz, Lucille Ball, Frank Sinatra, and Barron Hilton. Williams’ aesthetic incredibly defined “Hollywood Glamour,” a widespread style at the time.

If you didn’t know, he was also the great mind behind the iconic Theme Building at the Los Angeles International Airport. Despite his incredible talent as an architect, Williams wasn’t spared from all the racism and hostility from white colleagues and clients.

He sometimes would review plans and draw in an upside-down position so they wouldn’t have to be blatantly uncomfortable around him. Unfortunately, after his death, it was only in 2017 that Williams received the AIA Gold Medal to recognize his legacy in American architecture.

4 – Norma Merrick Sklarek

A trailblazer who broke the gender norms and barriers surrounding the profession, Norma Merrick Sklarek was the first prominent female African American architect. She designed Terminal One at the Los Angeles International Airport, also known as LAX.

She was also the mind behind the Pacific Design Center, renowned for its distinctive lines and colors. For Sklarek, the wall between her and other Black male counterparts was harder to overcome due to her skin color, especially her gender.

It was apparent, according to her, that there was a quota within the schools, particularly against women and Black people. Sklarek had difficulty navigating her career as she had no role model to look up to. Even so, she was happy to be one for other women of color who followed and aspired to be architects like her.

5 – Beverly Loraine Greene

Although she wasn’t the pioneering female architect in history, Beverly Loraine Greene was the first licensed Black female architect in the United States. She obtained her license in Illinois in 1942. Her career took off in Chicago under the Chicago Housing Authority.

She eventually moved to New York City due to the subsequent racism and lack of work. During her stint in New York, Greene designed the Stuyvesant town Housing Project, another form of irony since it barred Black people from residing in 1945.

Greene also got to work with world-renowned names like Edward Durell Stone at the Sarah Lawrence College Arts Complex and Marcel Breuer at the UNESCO Headquarters in Paris.

Architectural Black History of Tampa, Florida: A legacy to carry on

Written by author, former architectural project manager, and artist Ronald Lee Harden, the Architectural Black History of Tampa, Florida, is a book that tells the story of the author’s lifetime work that heavily contributed to Tampa’s cultural and economical expansion for 36 years. The projects he spearheaded created homes, job opportunities, and cultural events for people of color n the city, significantly improving their lives.


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