In the 1930’s, there were about 60 Black Americans were listed as registered architects. Many of their buildings have since been lost or radically changed. Although conditions have improved, many people feel that Black architects today still lack the recognition they deserve.
Here are some of America’s most notable Black architects who paved the way for today’s minority builders. Notice how the university first called Tuskegee Institute, whose School of Architecture is today named after one of these historic figures, played an important role in the careers of many Black American architects.
Robert Robinson Taylor (1868–1942)
Robert Robinson Taylor (born June 8, 1868, Wilmington, North Carolina) is widely considered the first academically trained and credentialed Black architect in America. Growing up in North Carolina, Taylor worked as a carpenter and foreman for his prosperous father, Henry Taylor, the son of a white slaveholder and a Black mother.
While Wallace Augustus Rayfield was a student at Columbia University, Booker T. Washington recruited him to head the Architectural and Mechanical Drawing Department at Tuskegee Institute. Rayfield worked alongside Robert Robinson Taylor in establishing Tuskegee as a training ground for future Black architects. After a few years, Rayfield opened his own practice in Birmingham, Alabama, where he designed many homes and churches — most famously, the 16th Street Baptist Church in 1911. Rayfield was the second professionally-educated Black architect in the United States, right behind Taylor.
William Sidney Pittman (1875–1958)
William Sidney Pittman is thought to be the first Black architect to receive a federal contract — the Negro Building at the Jamestown Tercentennial Exposition in Virginia, 1907 — and the first Black architect to practice in the state of Texas. Like other Black architects, Pittman was educated at Tuskegee University and then went on to study architecture at Drexel Institute in Philadelphia.
Moses McKissack III (1879–1952)
Moses McKissack III was the grandson of an African-born slave who became a master builder. Moses III joined his brother Calvin to form one of the earliest Black architectural firms in the United States — McKissack & McKissack in Nashville, Tennessee, 1905. Building on the family legacy, today’s McKissack and McKissack has worked on thousands of facilities, including managing the design and construction of the National Museum of African American History and Culture and being the architect of record for the MLK Memorial, both in Washington, D.C. The McKissack family reminds us that architecture is not exclusively about design, but that all design architects depend on an architectural team. The Smithsonian’s Black history museum was designed in part by African-born Architect David Adjaye and was one of the last projects by American architect J. Max Bond. The McKissacks worked with everyone involved to get the project done.
Julian F. Abele was one of America’s most important architects, but he never signed his work and he was not publicly acknowledged in his lifetime. As the first Black graduate of architecture (1902) at the University of Pennsylvania, Abele spent his entire career at the Philadelphia firm of the Gilded Age architect Horace Trumbauer. Abele worked for Trumbauer when they received a commission to expand the campus of a whites-only university in Durham, North Carolina. Although Abele’s original architectural drawings for Duke University have been described as works of art, it has been only since the 1980s that Abele’s efforts have been acknowledged at Duke. Today Abele is celebrated on campus.
Clarence W. (“Cap”) Wigington (1883–1967)
Cap Westley Wigington was the first registered Black architect in Minnesota and the first Black municipal architect in the United States. Born in Kansas, Wigington was raised in Omaha, where he also interned to develop his architecture skills. At about age 30, he moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, took a civil service test, and was hired to be that city’s staff architect. He designed schools, fire stations, park structures, municipal buildings, and other important landmarks that still stand in St. Paul. The pavilion he designed for Harriet Island is now called the Wigington Pavilion.
Vertner Woodson Tandy (1885–1949)
Born in Kentucky, Vertner Woodson Tandy was the first registered Black architect in New York State, the first Black architect to belong to the American Institute of Architects (AIA), and the first Black man to pass the military commissioning examination. Tandy designed landmark homes for some of the wealthiest residents of Harlem, including the 1918 Villa Lewaro for the self-made millionaire and cosmetics entrepreneur Madam C. J. Walker.
In some circles, Abele is best known as one of the founders of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity. While at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, Tandy and six other Black men formed a study and support group as they struggled through the racial prejudice of early 20th century America. Founded on December 4, 1906, Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. has “supplied voice and vision to the struggle of African Americans and people of color around the world.” Each of the founders, including Tandy, are often referred to as “Jewels.” Tandy designed their insignia.
John E. Brent (1889–1962)
The first Black professional architect in Buffalo, New York was John Edmonston Brent. His father, Calvin Brent, was the son of a slave and became the first Black architect in Washington, D.C. where John was born. John Brent was educated at Tuskegee Institute and received his architecture degree from Drexel Institute in Philadelphia. Brent is well-known for designing Buffalo’s Michigan Avenue YMCA, a building that became a cultural center for the Black community in Buffalo.
Louis A. S. Bellinger (1891–1946)
Born in South Carolina, Louis Arnett Stuart Bellinger earned a Bachelor of Science degree in 1914 from the historically Black Howard University in Washington, D.C. For more than a quarter of a century, Bellinger designed key buildings in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, only a handful of his buildings have survived, and all have been altered. His most important work was the Grand Lodge for the Knights of Pythias (1928), which became financially unsustainable after the Great Depression. In 1937 it was remodeled to become the New Granada Theatre.
Paul Revere Williams became renown for designing major buildings in Southern California, including the space-aged LAX Theme Building at the Los Angeles International Airport and over 2000 homes in the hills throughout Los Angeles. Many of the most beautiful residences in Hollywood were created by Paul Williams.
Albert Irvin Cassell (1895–1969)
Albert I. Cassell shaped many academic communities in the United States. He designed buildings for Howard University in Washington D.C., Morgan State University in Baltimore, and Virginia Union University in Richmond. Cassell also designed and built civic structures for the State of Maryland and the District of Columbia.
Norma Merrick Sklarek was the first Black woman to become a licensed architect in New York (1954) and California (1962). She was also the first Black woman honored by a Fellowship in AIA (1966 FAIA). Her many projects included working with and overseeing a design team headed by the Argentine-born César Pelli.
Robert Traynham Coles is noted for designing on a grand scale. His works include the Frank Reeves Municipal Center in Washington, D.C., the Ambulatory Care Project for Harlem Hospital, the Frank E. Merriweather Library, the Johnnie B. Wiley Sports Pavilion in Buffalo, and the Alumni Arena at the University of Buffalo. Founded in 1963, Coles’ firm ranks as one of the oldest in the Northeast owned by a Black American.
J. Max Bond, Jr. (1935–2009)
J. Max Bond, Jr. was born July 17, 1935 in Louisville, Kentucky and educated at Harvard, with a Bachelor’s degree in 1955 and a Master’s degree in 1958.
He studied in Paris at Le Corbusier studio on a 1958 Fulbright scholarship, and then for four years, Bond lived in Ghana, a country newly independent from Britain. The African nation was welcoming to young, Black talent — much more gracious than the cold-shoulders of American architectural firms in the early 1960s. Today, Bond may be best known for actualizing a public part of American history — the National September 11 Memorial Museum in New York City. Bond remains an inspiration to generations of minority architects.
Harvey Gantt (1943– )
Harvey Bernard Gantt’s political future may have been metaphorically cemented in place on January 16, 1963, when a Federal Court sided with the young student architect and future Mayor of Charlotte. By court order, Gantt integrated Clemson University by becoming its first Black student. Since then, Gantt has inspired generations of minority students and politicians, including a young law student named Barack Obama.