African-American Architects: Small Numbers Still but Recognized More

Did you know that African-American architects only represent a small portion of architects in the United States? In a recent podcast, I was surprised to discover that African-Americans only represent 2% of national numbers. As well, California represents even less with just 300 from a total of 21,000 licensed architects statewide. In 2019, the Directory of African-American Architects listed 2325 licensed architects in their database.

Paul Williams, the first African-American architect, became a member of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) in 1923 and in 1957, became its first black fellow.

Table of Contents

  1. Recognized African-American Architects in the United States
  2. African-American Architects: Overcoming the Diversity Challenges Through History
  3. African-Americans Continue to Face Challenges to Enter Architecture
    1. Decolonizing Architecture and Urban Design
    2. Are African-American Architects Self-Sufficient Today?
    3. In Conclusion: The Diversity Pledge

Though black architects have faced extreme challenges throughout history, many have finally been recognized for their contributions to developments across the United States. They include:

A Black Male Architect on his cell phone while two construction workers in the background at a construction site

Recognized African-American Architects in the United States

African American ArchitectKey Recognition
Roberta WashingtonAfrican-American, Female-owned architectural firm
Beverly Lorraine GreeneFirst African-American Female Architect licensed in the USA
Norma Merrick SklarekTerminal 1, Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), and the Pacific Design Center
Allison WilliamsAugust Wilson Center for African American Culture in Pittsburgh
Paul Revere Williams
“Architect to the Stars” and known for “Hollywood glamor”
Completed more than 2,000-designed homes which influenced Southern California’s architectural style and famous for celebrity homes from Frank Sinatra, Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz, and Barron Hilton
Julian AbeleFirst Black graduate of Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania in 1902 and primary designer of the West Campus of Duke University

Vertner Woodson Tandy
The 1918 Georgian-style residence Villa Lewaro and St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Harlem (1910).
Also, the first registered black architect in New York and the first black architect of the American Institute of Architects (AIA)Moses McKissack IIIThe Tuskegee Army Airfield (1942) was the largest project awarded to a black-owned firm and also known as the nation’s first black-owned architecture firmClarence Wesley ‘Cap’ WigingtonThe first registered black architect in Minnesota and first black municipal architect in the United States. Became St. Paul, MN senior architectural designer and had an extensive body of work with nearly 60 buildings still standing
Robert Robinson TaylorAttended M.I.T and became its first black graduate and designed
more than 25 buildings on the Tuskegee campus, including libraries, housing, museums, and other academic buildings across the United States

African-American Architects: Overcoming the Diversity Challenges Through History

Even with well-deserved recognition of history’s past black architects, the industry is still plagued with a low presentation. New attempts are now being made to diversify the design profession.

A group calling itself SOCALNOMA or The Southern California Branch of the National Organization of Minority Architects is working to change the past with the launch of its Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) challenge.

The challenge is designed to encourage architecture firms to increase the representation of people of color through hiring and partnership opportunities, thanks to the efforts of Lance Collins, the organization’s President.

How will this be achieved? By modeling efforts around the LEED rating system which requires firms to commit to public disclosure of diversity metrics.

Why is this being pursued? It’s not simply about representation and opportunity if you think about it. When we look at architecture today, most of it is based on a euro-centric form of design aesthetics and to be frank, most architecture has been largely built by white architects, and what cities produce today or in the recent past may not reflect the needs, cultural heritage or aspiration of all of its residents. Have we lost out by excluding people of color? I absolutely think so!

African-Americans Continue to Face Challenges to Enter Architecture

The biggest challenge to exclusion is also the most obvious one. As a child, architecture was in full view as an opportunity for me growing up as a white male. But its exposure is not a career path that would have been well-represented in a lot of communities in major urban centers or even rural locations for people of color. And if we look at it more generationally, this exposure would not have even been possible for poorer white or European people unless they came from aristocratic wealth.

Thus, people of color and the parents, in particular, would not likely have been as aware of the profession of architecture, what it involves, and most likely would not have been exposed to the profession when they were kids. Sure, they might have been aware of its salary potential in comparison to other established professions like lawyers and doctors.

The second most obvious challenge was education and curriculum. Even when I was going through my high school years, there was no course or related programming to discover or guide me into the profession beyond a casual conversation with the guidance counselor. Even so, I somehow stumbled on the career potential and profession and had opportunities to look to others for possible mentorship opportunities, though I never looked at the individual’s color as a factor because as I child, I looked up to Muhammad Ali.

For younger African-Americans, the prospect would not be the same as the current representation of architects would not depict diversity or cultural identity that normally manifests itself into mentorship opportunities or serve as a source of individual encouragement. People always look up to personal heroes or seek some level of personalization to inspire them into action and to pursue opportunities they’d normally not consider.

In a generational sense, people of color might not have experienced a family history of architects, designers, engineers, or professors that could spark the early interest to pursue this specialized profession. Having family examples within your reach can certainly spark and define career paths early.

Decolonizing Architecture and Urban Design

Some academic institutions like Cornell University had an early start at program diversity and inclusivity. Beyond small but improving African-American graduation rates, a strong focus on minority affairs and the development of key support programs for recruitment have helped to change trends slowly.

African-Americans Protesting Outside Washington demanding Equal Rights and an end to Racial Bias, Integrated Schools and Poor Housing
Source: US Library of Congress, http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.03128

It’s an effort to move the needle away from architecture as a “gentleman’s profession”, originating from France in the late 1800s with its defined euro centricity in architecture, aesthetics, and teaching style. With a broader more encompassing global effort, it aims to enrich the profession with different types of identities, ethnicities, and gender to allow different topics on community development to surface and thrive in modern society.

To that end, decolonization results in more well-rounded architects and designers coming into the market with inclusive ideas which build better communities and lessen disparity and bias.

Early efforts at decolonization could probably be associated with The Tuskegee Institute, a historically black college, which was founded by Booker T. Washington in Tuskegee, Alabama. To fight Jim Crow segregation, Mr. Washington called for black progress through education and entrepreneurism. He mobilized a nationwide movement from middle-class blacks, church leaders, white philanthropists, and politicians around black progress with the long-term goal of building community economic strength and pride with self-help and schooling. It should be noted that Mr. Washington was part of the black elite, adviser to multiple U.S. Presidents, and was from the last generation of black Americans born into slavery and thus became the voice for former slaves and their descendants.

The Institute was modeled as a counterpoint to developments at MIT, Cornell University, and other schools but was really shaped like the Beaux-Arts Academy in France. While programming taught design principles, it focused on the holistic building process, the learning of trades and construction and became a master builder model, ensuring more economic control in black communities and more self-sufficiency for its architects through their careers.

In some ways, the Tuskegee Institute was ahead of its time even by today’s standards. Its model of the master builder is almost sidelined with today’s profession and curriculum, experts say. Architects today rely on builders to do the building and thus really are limited on how to build because they don’t know-how. In a nutshell, the most critical part of today’s profession is not taught at the academic level but the majority is today on the job at the construction site.

However, progress continues with many calling for real-world practice to get added into the curriculum. Today, many more firms are taking on design-build approaches with a master builder type of firm structure. Thus, this momentum is a positive change for the profession.

Are African-American Architects Self-Sufficient Today?

Tuskegee enabled and encouraged self-sufficiency because it wasn’t likely that wealthy white Americans were likely to hire a black architect. Yes, there was the architect to the start, Paul Williams, but there weren’t many instances or as many as could be available to people of color.

Money remains largely in the hands of white power and as a community and interlocking relationships go, these monied interests hire from their own professional and social networks and are more likely to hire their white friends to design homes, other buildings, or significant infrastructure. This happens across all areas of business and life, not just architecture.

A Young Professional African-American in a nice white shirt with tie

There is a small measure of hope. Wealth is now more widespread in 2020 and wealthy people come from many backgrounds or races. Black Americans are now represented in the millionaire and billionaire class making the ranks with their white aristocrats. We’re now seeing this emerging Black American class who seek out black architects or send projects or major contracts to black-owned architectural firms but still, the numbers aren’t large. So in some ways, it does bring us back to the representation argument, providing examples and hope for up-and-coming black architects. Still, brand name appeal doesn’t exist from a national awareness and exposure perspective that could allow a broader pool of clients to request black architects.

But it’s a start and there’s always room for improvement.

In Conclusion: The Diversity Pledge

As mentioned earlier, the Diversity Challenge is modeled on the LEED rating system or the architecture 2030 challenge which requires public disclosure of diversity metrics annually and it is purely voluntary. The current challenge is a pilot for Southern California and has a small growing pool of 12 or so firms taking this on with a commitment to pledge and disclosure.

The benefit of this program is that it will capture performance but also gaps in the educational process or the intern development process as a result of data that can be analyzed and referenced.

With it, the industry can and will do better. More importantly, it may shape the future voice of black architects to infuse their style or some historical element of African-American culture into modern architecture that helps broaden the lexicon beyond euro-centric design and history. Could we be on the path of an African-American aesthetic in identity architecture fueling a renaissance of sorts?

Perhaps but it won’t follow a monolithic pattern but it will inspire a fusion of design and historical elements to help infuse cultural identity which wasn’t possible in the past. You can find this in a lot of Mexican architecture and design, fusing cultural identity to pre-existing euro-centric aesthetics.

Very interesting architecture is coming from Africa with hybridized influences that combine traditional eurocentric architectural education with local culture, heritage, and history.

One of the current superstars is David Adjaye and you can learn more about his thoughts from this excellent Google talk.