African-American architects

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

African-American architects are those in the architectural profession who are African American in the United States. Their work in the more distant past was often overlooked or outright erased from the historical records due to the racist social dynamics at play in the country (and also due to the proxied nature of the profession itself), but the black members of the profession—and their historic contributions—have become somewhat more recognized since.[1][2]

"The experience of being Black in architecture involves learning about a discipline that does not include the contributions of African American architects like Paul Revere Williams, Robert R. Taylor, Walter T. Bailey and Wallace Rayfield within the canons of the profession... The experience of being Black in architecture requires you to unearth the accomplishments of other Blacks in architecture to understand how they navigated the often tumultuous waters of the profession."

Kwesi Daniels, 2020, department head at the Robert R. Taylor School of Architecture and Construction Science at Tuskegee University[1]


Julian Abele
Julian Abele

19th and 20th-centuries[edit]

The first African American architects appeared in the mid-1800s. Being African American and trying to become an architect in a White-dominated profession, especially in the 1800s-1900s was difficult.[3] Racism towards African Americans was prevalent in the 1800s-1900s and this was amplified by the addition and enforcement of Jim Crow laws. Jim Crow Laws enforced segregation of White and Blacks, therefore promoting direct racism. Many African American architects working during and after this time period faced obstacles due to overt racism perpetuated by the society and culture of the United States.


Claflin University (formerly Claflin College) was the first historically Black school to offer an architectural drawing course, starting around the 1890s.[4][5] Other early Black schools for architecture programs included Hampton University (formerly Hampton Institute), Florida A&M University, Howard University, North Carolina A&T State University, Prairie View A&M University (formerly Prairie View A&M College), Southern University, and Tuskegee University (formerly Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute).[5]


Paul Revere Williams (1917)
Paul Revere Williams (1943)

Some architects such as Julian Francis Abele, Louis Arnett Stuart Bellinger, and Paul Revere Williams were able to obtain architectural degrees from top universities, architectural licenses, and positions at top architectural firms.[2][3] However, clients were often opposed to having their projects overseen by an African American architect.[6] This resulted in many African American architects working without credit.[6]

Julian Francis Abele[edit]

Julian Francis Abele (1881–1950), was the first African American to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania School of Architecture (1902).[7][8] After traveling and studying in Europe under the sponsorship of Horace Trumbauer, Abele returned to Philadelphia and joined Trumbauer's firm in 1906. He served as chief designer from 1909 to 1938.[9][10] The Philadelphia Museum of Art was a collaboration between Trumbauer's firm and that of Zantzinger, Borie and Medary. While another Trumbauer architect, Howell Lewis Shay, is credited with the building's plan and massing, the presentation drawings are in Abele's hand.[11] It was not until after Trumbauer's death that Abele signed his architectural drawings, or claimed credit for being the main designer of Duke University's west campus.[12] Abele also helped design the Widener Memorial Library at Harvard.[13]

Paul Revere Williams[edit]

Paul Revere Williams (1894–1980), was raised in the Los Angeles area where he attended school.[14] After Graduating from high school, Williams attended the Los Angeles School of Art and eventually studied at University of Southern California (USC) (class of 1919).[15] Williams then worked for established firms run by Wilbert D. Cook Jr. and George D. Hall. Williams received his architecture license from the state of California, and was the first black person in the American Institute of Architects (AIA), joining the Southern California Chapter in 1923, and the first black person to become a fellow of the AIA, in 1957.[14] In 1921, he became the first African American Architect west of the Mississippi. Williams was also a member of the Los Angeles Planning Commission in 1920, the California Housing Commission in 1947, the National Monument Commission in 1929, and the National Housing Commission in 1953. Williams designed residential buildings as well as churches, schools, and other commercial buildings.[14]


Norma Merrick Sklarek
Norma Merrick Sklarek

Both African American men and women dealt with similar issues regarding race, but African American women in the mid-1800 to 1900s dealt with discrimination based on sex as well.[16][17] The first African American women architects, such as Norma Merrick Sklarek and Beverly Loraine Greene, were faced with many challenges as they completed their journey of becoming architects. For years prior, the architecture industry was dominated by white men. In the 1900s, it was difficult for an African American man to receive a fair chance to become employed at a firm because of racism. On top of this, women were fighting for equal rights. Women architects not only had to overcome many setbacks due to their race but also due to their gender. Some common setbacks faced by Sklarek included being denied entry into the world of architecture, and not receiving recognition for their work.[16] African American women had to work extremely hard just to have the chance to be educated in the field. As Sklarek demonstrated throughout her career, it was possible for African American women to excel in the architectural world, but the numbers of women within the field were low, and seem to have remained low from the time Sklarek was actively working to more recent years.

Norma Merrick Sklarek[edit]

Norma Merrick Sklarek (1928–2012), was the first black woman to become a licensed architect in both New York state (1954) and in California (1962).[18] She graduated from Columbia University and worked for the architecture firms SOM and Gruen and Associates. She also was the first black woman to join the American Institute of Architects. Sklarek collaborated with Cesar Pelli on projects that include the Pacific Design Center and the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo.

Beverly Loraine Greene[edit]

Beverly Lorraine Greene (1915–1957), was the first black woman to become a licensed architect in the US.[19] She was based out of Illinois, and started her practice in Chicago.[19] She struggled to be noticed because of her race.[19] Greene went on to work on international projects such as UNESCO headquarters in Paris, and designed buildings for NYU.[19]


Although the culture and society in the United States have improved from the 19th and 20th centuries, African American architects and other people of color who desire to become an architect continue to deal with a lack of diversity in the field. Only 2% of licensed architects in the United States are Black or African American, and fewer than 1 in 5 new architects identify as a racial or ethnic minority, according to the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards.[20]

The Directory of African American Architects[21] maintains an ongoing list of licensed African American architects. In 2007, there were 100,000 licensed architects in the United States, however only 1,571 of them were African American and 186 of these are African American women.[22] On October 24, 2019, there were 2,300 African American architects listed, including 467 women. African American architects represent about 2%[23] of all licensed architects (116,000)[24] and African American women represent approximately 0.4%, according to the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB). There are several organizations and initiatives focused on increasing representation including the National Organization of Minority Architects, Riding the Vortex,[25] 400 FORWARD, Hip Hop Architecture, First 500,[26] and Beyond the Built Environment.[27][28]

List of African-American architects[edit]



Architectural firms owned by African Americans[edit]


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Further reading[edit]