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15 Pioneering Black Architects Who Shaped America
At VERANDA, we believe our built environment informs how we understand our own communities and reflects who we are as a society. We are committed to featuring more work from contemporary architects of color on our site, our social platforms, and in the pages of our magazine. By and large, that work would not have been possible without the rich body of work created by America's first Black architects, all of whom were true pioneers—not just for design professions but also for American society.
Several were the first Black students to enroll at some of the country's top academic and research institutions; several opened other businesses, like banks, that served the Black community; many served on boards at some of America's most prestigious cultural institutions; and nearly all spent time teaching at or designing buildings for many of the country's top historically black colleges and universities. Importantly, a group of 12 pioneering Black architects, including Wendell Campbell featured here, founded the National Organization for Minority Architects in 1971 in Detroit to "minimize the effect of racism" within the architecture profession.
In support of the Black Lives Matter movement and in response to George Floyd's murder and other acts of violence against Black Americans, NOMA has revised its mission statement to the following: "NOMA’s mission, rooted in a rich legacy of activism, is to empower our local chapters and membership to foster justice and equity in communities of color through outreach, community advocacy, professional development, and design excellence."
Earlier this year, NOMA launched the NOMA Foundation Fellowship, a 12-week paid architectural summer internship for NOMA student members in five cities, to assist minority students in achieving licensure, thereby increasing the number of minority architects in the U.S.
Here, we celebrate the contributions of 15 historic Black men and women to our country's built environments (from schools and places of worship to residences, civic buildings, libraries, and museums), the architecture profession, and to American culture at large.
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1) Robert Robinson Taylor (1868–1942)
As the first accredited Black architect in the U.S., Taylor's design and educational contributions to the profession are significant.
He was the first Black student to enroll at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he studied architecture. After graduating, he was recruited to Alabama's Tuskegee Institute by its founder and first president, Booker T. Washington, to plan the construction of new buildings on campus and to develop its architectural and engineering programs.
He left Tuskegee for a brief time, but returned in 1902 and stayed on until his retirement in the 1930s. Taylor ultimately designed some 25 buildings on campus, including a home for Washington and his family (shown here). He also designed buildings not at Tuskegee, including buildings at Selma University and the Colored Masonic Temple in Birmingham, AL.
In 2015, Taylor was honored by the U.S. Postal Service with a stamp commemorating his legacy. His great-granddaughter is Valerie Jarrett, who served as a senior advisor to President Barack Obama.
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2) Wallace Augustus Rayfield (1874–1941)
Born in Macon, Georgia, Rayfield was the second formally trained practicing Black architect in the U.S. After graduating from Columbia University in 1899, Rayfield was also recruited by Booker T. Washington to Alabama's Tuskegee Institute. In addition to teaching there, he opened his own practice from which he sold mail-order plans across the country.
In 1908, Rayfield moved to Birmingham, Alabama, to focus on his private practice where he designed, among many other buildings, the 16th Street Baptist Church.
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3) William Sidney Pittman (1875–1958)
Born to an ex-slave in Montgomery, Alabama, Pittman studied architectural drawing at the Tuskegee Institute. A scholarship sent him to the all-white Drexel Institute in Philadelphia, where he completed an architectural degree.
From there, he returned to Tuskegee to teach and design buildings for a campus expansion. He then moved to Washington, D.C., where he established his own practice, designed many of the city's prominent buildings, and married Portia Washington, the daughter of Booker T. Washington.
Some of his most important commissions include the Fairmount Heights housing development for Black people in Maryland; the Negro Building at the Tercentennial Exposition at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1907; and the Colored Carnegie Library of Houston.
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4) McKissack & McKissack
Founded in 1905 by Moses McKissack III (1879–1952) and his brother Calvin Lunsford McKissack (1890–1968) in Nashville, Tennessee, McKissack & McKissack is the first Black-owned architectural firm in the United States and is the oldest Black-owned architecture and engineering firm in the country.
The McKissack brothers had building and design in their blood: their grandfather, Moses McKissack, came to America in 1790 as a slave owned by a prominent contractor who used him as a builder. McKissack passed the trade down to his son, who in turn trained his sons.
The McKissack brothers became the first Black licensed architects in the Southeastern U.S. and went on to design many homes, churches, schools, and other buildings—including the Morris Memorial Building in Nashville (shown) and the 99th Pursuit Squadron Airbase in Tuskegee, AL, which was the largest federal contract at that time ever given to a Black-owned firm.
In 1990, Deryl McKissack (the granddaughter of Moses McKissack III), opened her own firm (of the same name) in Washington, D.C. The firm, which now has offices in Austin, Houston, Chicago, Washington, Baltimore, Los Angeles, and Dallas, has contributed to many significant civic projects, including the MLK Memorial and the National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall.
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5) Julien Abele (1881–1950)
After completing a two-year architectural drawing course at the Pennsylvania Museum School of Industrial Art (PMSIA), Abele was the first Black student admitted to the architecture school at the University of Pennsylvania, from which he graduated in 1902.
Abele traveled to Europe after graduation, which greatly influenced his work over the course of his career. He worked for Philadelphia architect Horace Trumbauer, where he became chief designer in just three years with the firm and greatly contributed to the design of academic and cultural institutions throughout the East Coast, from Harvard's Widener Memorial Library to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Perhaps his greatest work was the design of the west campus of Duke University, including the university chapel, the Allen Administration Building (shown), and the Duke Indoor Stadium (renamed Cameron Indoor Stadium in 1972). Duke's main quad was renamed the Abele Quad in 2016.
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6) Clarence W. Wigington (1883–1967)
Wigington was America's first Black municipal architect, having served as senior designer for the city of St. Paul, Minnesota's architectural office during a period of great expansion.
Many of Wigington's buildings—from schools and fire stations to park structures—still stand in St. Paul, including the Highland Park Golf Clubhouse (shown) and the downtown St. Paul Police Station.
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7) Vertner Woodson Tandy (1885–1949)
Tandy began his studies at Tuskegee University but completed his architectural degree at Cornell University, which led him to become the first Black architect licensed in the state of New York.
His most well-known building is Villa Lewaro (shown), the home of Madam C.J. Walker in Irvington-on-Hudson, NY. Walker was a self-made millionaire who made her fortune from the line of cosmetics and hair-care products she developed for Black women.
Tandy's firm, Tandy & Foster, also designed the Ivey Delph and Harlem's St. Philip's Episcopal Church.
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8) Paul Revere Williams (1894–1980)
Despite being discouraged from pursuing architecture at Los Angeles' Polytechnic High School due to his race, Williams sought architectural education along with professional experience at some of the city's top firms in the early 20th century. By 1921, he was licensed as an architect in California, and in 1923, he became the first Black member of the American Institute of Architects.
Williams's versatile style left an indelible mark on L.A.'s booming built environment during the 20th century. He became known as "Hollywood's architect," having designed homes for Cary Grant, Lucille Ball, and Frank Sinatra, to name a few. He also designed commercial and civic buildings throughout the city and country, including the Crescent Wing of the Beverly Hills Hotel, the Golden State Life Insurance Building, and St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, his parents' hometown.
In 2017, Williams was posthumously awarded the AIA Gold Medal, making him the first Black American to receive the award.
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9) Albert Irvin Cassell (1895–1969)
Washington, D.C.-based Cassell helped shaped American academic communities, most notably at Howard University, where he worked for the architecture department as a professor, as well as a land manager, surveyor, and architect. His most important work at Howard is the Georgian-style Founders Library (shown), which was built in 1937 and became the symbol for the university.
Cassell also designed buildings for Virginia Union University in Richmond and Morgan State College (now Morgan State University) in Baltimore. He also founded Cassell, Gray & Sutton, where he worked for the Roman Catholic Church of Washington and the government of the District of Columbia. Some of his most notable projects include work on Reagan International Airport (called Washington National at the time) and the Pentagon.
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10) Hilyard Robinson (1899–1986)
After graduating from Columbia University in 1924 with a degree in architecture, Robinson returned to his hometown of Washington, D.C., where he worked for several architecture firms and taught at Howard University. Robinson traveled to Europe several times during his career, and his work reflects the influence the Bauhaus style had on him.
In addition to the many buildings he designed on the Howard campus, Robinson left his mark on Washington with the Langston Terrace Dwellings (shown), the first federally funded housing complex in the District of Columbia and the second in the U.S.
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11) Beverly Loraine Greene (1915–1957)
Greene is believed to be the first Black woman licensed as an architect in the United States (Illinois, 1942). After graduating from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she was the first African-American woman to earn a degree in architectural engineering, she earned a Master's in City Planning and Housing.
After working for the Chicago Housing Department, Greene moved to New York City, where she received a Master's in Architecture from Columbia University in 1945. Her list of work includes the theater at the University of Arkansas, Arts Complex at Sarah Lawrence College, buildings for the University Heights Campus of New York University, and the UNESCO United Nations Headquarters in Paris (shown).
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12) John Warren Moutoussamy (1922–1995)
After graduating in 1948 with a degree in architecture from the Illinois Institute of Technology where he studied under Mies Van Der Rohe, Moutoussamy became the first Black architect to design a high-rise building in Chicago. That building, the Johnson Publishing Company headquarters (shown), was home to the Ebony and Jet magazine offices and remains the only downtown Chicago tower designed by a Black architect.
Moutoussamy designed many other buildings in Chicago, including Richard J. Daley College, Olive–Harvey College, Harry S. Truman College, and the Chicago Urban League building. He was a partner at Dubin Dubin Black & Moutoussamy and served on the board of trustees of Loyola University Chicago and the Art Institute of Chicago.
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13) Wendell Jerome Campbell (1927–2008)
Another student of Mies Van Der Rohe's at the Illinois Institute of Technology, Campbell graduated in 1956 and had trouble finding a permanent position. After working for the Purdue-Calumet Development Foundation, where he developed an expertise in urban renewal and affordable housing developments, he started his own firm in 1966.
His work includes the Genesis Convention Center in Gary, Indiana (shown) and renovations to the McCormick Place Convention Center as well as school, church, and other civic buildings throughout Chicago. In 1971, Campbell co-founded the National Organization of Minority Architects and served as its first president.
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14) Norma Merrick Sklarek (1926–2012)
Sklarek was a woman of firsts: She was the first Black woman to become a licensed architect in both New York (1954) and California (1962). She was also the first Black woman to become a member of the AIA in 1959, and its first Black female fellow in 1980.
Having been educated at Columbia University, Sklarek built her career on leading large commercial and civic projects like the Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles (shown), The California Mart, San Bernardino City Hall, the Mall of America, the embassy of the United States in Tokyo, and Terminal One station at Los Angeles International Airport. In 1985, she cofounded her own firm, Siegel, Sklarek, and Diamond, which was the largest woman-owned architecture firm at the time.
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15) J. Max Bond, Jr. (1935–2009)
One of Bond's greatest legacies is designing some of the country's top civil rights and Black culture research institutes.
After graduating from Harvard with a Masters of Architecture, Bond launched his career in France with French modernist architect André Wogenscky. He then worked in New York and Ghana before founding Bond Ryder & Associates, which designed the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (shown) in Birmingham, Alabama, and Harlem's Schomburn Center for Research in Black Culture.
Bond held several important civic and educational roles in the field of architecture as well: the chairman of the architecture division at the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture and Planning from 1980 to 1984; the dean at the City College of New York School of Architecture and Environmental Studies from 1985 to 1992; and he served as a member of the New York City Planning Commission from 1980 to 1986. One of his final projects included designing the museum section of the National September 11 Museum and Memorial at the World Trade Center.
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