Legacy of black architects yet to be fully recognized

In many cities across the nation, “Carnegie” libraries are automatically accorded historic landmark status because of the sweep of the philanthropic program to build libraries at the beginning of the 20th century.

More recently, “Rosenwald” schools, segregated black institutions funded by the head of Sears Roebuck, are also being recognized.

But like most aspects of history, there is a presumption that African-Americans have been acted upon in the field of architecture.  They’ve merely lived in buildings someone else designed.

Like most aspects of conventional history, that presumption is wrong.    While in the USC School of Architecture library, I came across A Biographical Directory of African-American Architects by Dreck Wilson, a Washington, D.C. architect himself.  The 2004 book chronicles 168 architects from 1865 to 1945.

The jaw-dropping litany of facts and buildings includes:

The systematic, nationwide design of black churches nationally by leaders of such denominations as the A.M.E. and the National Baptist Convention as early as 1900

Books on architecture by black architects as early as 1892.

Records on black builders in the Americas dating back to the 1520s.

Black architects who designed campus buildings at the University of Chicago and Duke and Vanderbilt Universities.

Entire neighborhoods designed by black architects from Durham to Richmond to Sag Harbor and Los Angeles

Women architects who made strides in historic preservation and design

The directory also lists the buildings and addresses where these architects made their imprint.

It adds to the impetus to create a National Black Heritage Trail.  The haphazard way that individual jurisdictions evaluate black heritage means that many of these buildings are not appropriately protected.

Wilson notes that almost hundred other black architects from that era were not included because of gaps in documentation.  It was not uncommon for slaves to design bridges or even the Alabama State Capitol, yet the credit went to their owners.  Benjamin Banneker’s role in designing Washington, D.C. went obscured for many years.

During National Black Business Month in August, a great community wide activity can be the identification of buildings constructed by African-American builders and architects. In Los Angeles, that includes 3,000 done by Paul Revere Williams, including the first building one sees when arriving at Los Angeles International Airport.

During family reunions, ask elders about the homes and farms and schools built for their communities. It is not as rare as one would think.  Another example will air on PBS this week on Time Team, the story of Free Frank McWorter and New Philadelphia, IL, which has been landmarked as the first all-black town designed by an African-American.

With that knowledge, we can take a more proactive stance towards rebuilding our current communities.


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