CRM Journal

Book Review

African American Architects: A Biographical Dictionary, 1865-1945

Edited by Dreck Spurlock Wilson. New York: Routledge, 2004; 505 pp., photographs, illustrations, tables, bibliography, appendix, index; cloth $95.00.


The story of the professional architect in America follows a carefully contrived narrative. Amid a sea of local building traditions, dilettantes such as Thomas Jefferson spearheaded dramatic aesthetic innovations based on European classicism. Immigrant architects such as the English-born Benjamin Henry Latrobe and American followers and students like Robert Mills, the first native-born trained architect, sought to distinguish themselves from dilettantes and protect themselves from builders. In 1857, the American Institute of Architects was founded; in 1865, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology established regular programs of study based on the Ecole des Beaux-Arts model; and beginning in 1897, state licensing required meeting standards of education and practice. By contrast, the story of early African American architecture has no architects. We know much about shotgun houses and Creole cottages but in the traditional canon of American architecture, the term African American professional architect has been an oxymoron.

Traditional storylines celebrate architecture with a capital "A" as an increasingly rarified discipline led by privileged stars and focused on aesthetic monuments. We simply forget the builders and contractors who were actually responsible for most buildings, and who were called architects. We forget the economy, technology, and politics. We forget the struggle for recognition in a highly competitive setting and the many designers who did not make the grade. We forget women and minorities. We forget ordinary buildings. Indeed, recent scholarly concerns about the gaps and limitations of such a narrative have literally reshaped the study of architectural history.(1) African American Architects: A Biographical Dictionary, 1865-1945, edited by Dreck Spurlock Wilson, is a major force to continue that reshaping, giving much needed presence to a large but essentially invisible group of designers, to innumerable but largely unknown buildings across the land, and to an awesome force of educational initiative, community spirit, and pride.

The first step in appreciating the magnitude of African American contributions to our built heritage is simply to look at all the schools, churches, commercial buildings, houses, and neighborhoods across the American landscape, and discover that many more of them were designed by African American architects than one might have thought. The second step, and the one that this dictionary is so good at emphasizing, is to realize that with each building come stories of its time and place and its architect's personal dedication. Every structure, its scale, detail, and placement, speak of our society's economy, its acceptance or renunciation of discrimination, its recognition of needs both public and private. African American Architects is the most comprehensive dictionary of these architects to date with over 160 detailed and well-documented entries, a thorough bibliography, and an appendix of all buildings listed by place and cross-referenced by architect and date. The entries reveal the African American men and women who shaped their lives and found official recognition by insisting on getting an education, finding employment, and using their skills on par with the best design professionals in the United States.

The architectural press's discrimination against and refusal to write about African Americans is one of the main prompts for this volume. Julian Abele, the first architect presented in the volume, designed 48 buildings for Duke University in the 1920s and 1930s, but dared not visit the campus because of Jim Crow practices. Robert Buffin received a job to work at Pearl Harbor in 1929 only to arrive and have his employer say "I asked for a draftsman, not a colored man." Leon Quincy Jackson, a black Seminole in 1950s Oklahoma was denied the right to take the state licensing exam. He convinced the governor to intercede, but still had to use a segregated hotel, enter through the back door, ride the freight elevator, and take the test in an unoccupied room. Indeed, being an African American architect has come with frightening and dismal challenges.

The most common and persistent manifestations of racism were entrenched poverty, ignorance, and the resulting diminished opportunity to fulfill one's talents. Finding steady employment was rare, much less being able to devote oneself to architecture. John Merrick's story exemplifies the challenges. Born a slave to his master's son in 1859, Merrick was freed after the Civil War and worked his way from hod carrier to brick mason to boot black to barber. Merrick eventually opened a string of barbershops, gained enough money to go into real estate, and then found the opportunity to design buildings. Even when doing this, he still acted as his own drayman, foreman, and carpenter. Many blacks just settled for construction or decoration work while whites designed the buildings. Others doubled as waiters, bellmen, or valets through times of "underemployment."

Although uniform in their presentation—illustrations consist of small grey headshots and usually one grainy shot of a building—the stories in the dictionary are captivating. This is not a coffee-table book about beautiful design, but rather a book about architecture and the social warriors who fought their way to usefulness and recognition. While the book is peppered with American Institute of Architects fellows and at least one presidential award, the real reward for the majority in the book seemed to be their first full-time job and the opportunity for service as architect, teacher, and other community leadership roles.

Given the social climate of the United States, the ultimate success of African American architects has been a mixed affair. Some were standouts. Paul Revere Williams, "architect to the stars," was probably the most prolific black architect with some 3,000 buildings, including one of the great icons of the 1960s, the spaceship-like Theme Building at Los Angeles International Airport. But success in many cases was far more muted. Georgia Louise Harris Brown, thought to be only the second African American woman to be licensed as an architect in the United States, landed a job with an exclusive Chicago engineering firm and had her most notable professional success preparing specifications for Mies van der Rohe's Lake Shore Drive and Promontory apartment buildings. So capable and yet so limited, Brown ultimately decided to learn Portuguese and moved to Brazil for the rest of her career to escape the color line.

While the traditional academic achievement and professional success of whites is the usual model, this book celebrates a different trajectory to success and a different finished product. Black high schools like Armstrong Technical in Washington, DC, and Sumner in St. Louis—the first black high school west of the Mississippi—served as the bedrock of opportunity for many. These schools fed eager students into black colleges such as Claflin College of Agriculture and Mechanics Institute for Colored Students (now Claflin University in Orangeburg, South Carolina), which in 1890 offered the first architectural drawing classes for African Americans. Howard University and Tuskegee Institute also were common choices as were early integrated institutions such as Cornell University and the University of Illinois.

For African American graduates, organizations such as the National Technical Association and the Colored Men's Business League helped confront racial discrimination. Indeed, black institutions like the Knights of Pythias, Masonic lodges, and churches were often valuable clients. Mentoring also provided much needed support in an intimidating professional world. L.O. Bankhead, who cut hair to pay his way at Voorhees College in Denmark, South Carolina, designed houses for Hollywood stars like Bonanza's Loren Green, and mentored as many as 40 young designers in his Los Angeles office.

As defeating as the environment was, casting a pessimistic shadow over African American architectural endeavor would be false. The challenges faced by African American professionals provided benchmarks for the successes achieved. Howard University served as a virtual think tank of designers with nearly a dozen architects teaching and designing campus buildings. A couple of the greatest projects mentioned in the dictionary were for model large-scale low-income housing. Lewis Mumford described the 1930s Public Works Administration-sponsored Langston Terrace public housing in Washington, DC, as looking "better than the best modern work in Hamburg or Vienna." That project's success helped lead to the passage of the first United States Housing Act of 1937. The Harlem River Houses of the same era provided the first federally funded housing in New York, comprising 574 units with extensive landscaping, a nursery school, children's indoor recreation, a health clinic, and social rooms for adults.

The dictionary's greatest benefit derives from its focus on an important, elusive, and often overlooked topic. This topic deserves further inquiry. Apparently some 80 architects were not included for lack of information. Black neighborhoods merit investigation as settings for professional fulfillment. The dynamics of African American places of business and entertainment like U Street, the "Great Black Way" in Washington, DC, and Deep Deuce in Oklahoma City, are far from clear. More information on black organizations would be valuable. The inception and life of black communities like Fairmount Heights in Maryland, Eastgate in Columbus, Ohio, and American Beach in Florida, deserve attention. Also needed is more information on the interaction of black and white professional cultures.

In the introduction, the editor of this volume asks whether there is an African American architecture. After reading nearly 200 stories about 1,000 designs, this clearly is a more complicated question than one might think. Only one African link is made in the entire book. There are no entries describing African traditions in Creole or shotgun houses. Instead, the volume seems to document exclusively the suppression of distinctive African American traits in favor of national design norms. Trying to fit in, showing their skill with prevailing aesthetic trends, and being economically strong and respected in their communities, these designers largely conformed to design standards, but not to stereotypes of what it meant to be African American. What we see is not African American architecture as a distinct style or type, but rather architecture by dynamic and creative blacks in the United States. While African American architecture it is, it is not an architecture for African Americans to claim alone but for society as a whole.

E. G. Daves Rossell
Savannah College of Art and Design



1. Most notably, the last 30 years have seen a dramatic expansion of works on folk and popular traditions and on social aspects of design. See the Vernacular Architecture Forum's bibliography for a sense of the range: For the best recent overview of architecture and professionalism, see Dell Upton, Architecture in the United States (New York and Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1998).