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10 Pioneers of Black American Architecture and Design

By Ted Ryan

10 Pioneers of Black American Architecture and Design

National Museum of African American History and Culture. Wikimedia Commons.

Author Alan Moore says that the buildings that surround us dictate our psychologies. The landscapes we exist in, we internalize. If one’s environment seems like a rat trap, eventually one will start to view themselves as a rat. Architecture and authority have always been intertwined. For Black Americans then, subjugated by authority and its architectural symbols from 1619 to this day, designing buildings and affecting environments is itself an act of liberation.

Like almost any skilled profession, especially those powerful enough to shape places and perceptions, architecture and design careers have been historically unavailable to Black aspirants. Systemic racism inserted into class, education, and hiring have created a white male-dominated industry that still persists. Today, Black women make up just 0.4% of all US architects.

As we find ways to amplify Black visions everywhere, we realize our work has only just begun. Click to learn more about our Diversity Advancement Scholarship for Black Women— a scholarship supporting Black women earning their degree in Architecture.

Diversity in Architecture
Black Women in Architecture

Although slow, progress is being made. Today there are 10x as many Black women architects as there were just three decades ago and the people of color who now share their visions with the world, impressing justice and parity on our psychologies, have found a foothold through their own perseverance and the pathways walked by true revolutionaries.

Join us as we celebrate 10 pioneers of Black American architecture and design.

10 Pioneers of Black American Architecture

Robert Robinson Taylor

Robert R. Taylor, MIT's first Black graduate and America's first licensed Black architect, Class of 1892. Courtesy MIT Museum.

Robert Robinson Taylor
was the first accredited Black architect in the United States. Taylor was born in 1868, just three years after the end of slavery. His father was a freed slave, emancipated two decades earlier by his own father who was also his master.

Taylor grew up in Wilmington, NC, and was the first Black American admitted into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he received his degree in Architecture.

After graduating from MIT, Taylor was recruited by Booker T. Washington to teach at Tuskegee University. Taylor’s job was to create an architecture program in the model of MIT’s and he spent 40 years there as a professor and pioneering architect. Today, Tuskegee’s Robert R. Taylor School of Architecture and Construction Science is a lasting testament to Taylor’s groundbreaking legacy.

Beverly Loraine Greene

Beverly Loraine Greene, America’s first licensed Black female architect. Courtesy Illinois Distributed Museum.

Born in Chicago in 1915, Beverly Loraine Greene became America’s first licensed Black female architect in 1942-- a full 50 years after Taylor began his own career.

Facing discrimination and lack of opportunity, Greene moved from Chicago to New York where she got her break as the first architect, black or white, hired for the Stuyvesant Town housing project in Manhattan, a development African-Americans weren’t even allowed to live in at the time. Greene soon left the job to receive her Master’s Degree from Columbia University.

Among her most celebrated contributions include the arts complex at Sarah Lawrence University and the UNESCO headquarters in Paris, France. Greene only lived to be 41 years old but her contribution is enduring. The woman of many firsts’ funeral was held at Unity Funeral Home in New York, a building she helped design.

Paul Revere Williams

Paul Revere Williams, the first Black member of the American Institute of Architects. Courtesy of AIA.

Known as the architect to the stars, Paul Revere Williams was a celebrity himself with a legacy of iconic California landmarks.

Orphaned at age four, Williams bounced between foster homes before one foster mother committed to Williams and developing his talents. With the gift of education and the experience of growing up in a vibrantly multicultural city, Williams pushed past adversity and the discouragement of a cynical teacher to become the first licensed Black architect in California in 1921. By 1923 he operated his own firm, the same year he became the first Black member of the American Institute of Architects.

Williams went on to design homes for Frank Sinatra, Lucille Ball, and Desi Arnaz. Eight of Williams’s creations have been named to the National Register of Historic Places. Some of his most recognizable works include the LAX Theme Building, the Palm Springs Tennis Club, and the 1949 renovation of the Beverly Hills Hotel.

Norma Merrick Sklarek

Norma Merrick Sklarek, described as “the Rosa Parks of architecture”. Courtesy of the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation.

Routinely called “the Rosa Parks of architecture”, Norma Merrick Sklarek was a monumental figure responsible for some of the most audacious designs known today.

Born in Harlem, Sklarek became the first Black female architect licensed in New York in 1954. After working in public works and for two architectural firms in New York she became the first Black female member of the American Institute of Architects in 1959. A year later she moved to Los Angeles where she became the first Black female architect licensed in California in 1962 and the first female Black fellow of the American Institute of Architecture in 1980.

Beyond her feats and firsts, Sklarek is best known for Terminal One at Los Angeles International Airport, the Pacific Design Center, and the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo.

Moses McKissack III and Calvin Lunsford McKissack

Brothers Moses McKissack III and Calvin Lunsford McKissack, founders of the first Black-owned architectural firm in America. Courtesy of McKissack & McKissack.

Moses McKissack III
and his younger brother Calvin Lunsford McKissack founded the first and oldest Black-owned architectural firm in the United States. In 1790 their grandfather, Moses McKissack was sold into slavery through the West African slave trade and became a master builder in North Carolina.

Moses’s skills were passed down through generations and emancipation until Moses III started a Nashville construction business in 1905. His first major commission came in 1908 with the Carnegie Library at Fisk University.

For the next 13 years, Moses’s business grew while his brother Calvin was usually by his side. In 1922, Calvin joined Moses as business partners, founding McKissack & McKissack, the first Black-owned firm in the United States.

McKissack & McKissack received many federal contracts throughout the 1930s from the New Deal era’s Works Progress Administration. At the outset of World War II, the firm was awarded a $5.7 million contract for construction of the Ninety-ninth Pursuit Squadron Air Base in Tuskegee, AL. The airbase was the largest contract ever granted by the federal government to a Black-owned company and was built to house an all-Black combat air unit, just miles from Tuskegee University where African-American architecture began.

Leatrice Buchanan McKissack

Leatrice Buchanan McKissack, the first female owner of a Black-owned construction company in the US. Courtesy of McKissack & McKissack.

Following Calvin McKissack’s death in 1968, Moses’s son William McKissack took over the business until a stroke required him to resign in 1988. It was then that McKissack & McKissack achieved yet another first for a Black-owned construction company: female-run.

Leatrice Buchanan McKissack filled her husband’s shoes on day one, fending off offers from competitors to buy the firm and steering the company back to profitability. McKissack faced sexism at the helm, recalling how one vice president threw a stack of papers at her during an argument, but he was fired and the company thrived.

Today, Leatrice’s daughter Cheryl leads the oldest Black-owned and female-run construction company in the US, and her twin sister Deryl owns her own construction company also named McKissack and McKissack.

Leatrice cites the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis as her most meaningful project; the testament to the Civil Rights Movement adjacent to the Lorraine Motel where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.

Fireclay Fun Fact: McKissack and McKissack constructed LaGuardia Airport's new Terminal B (which features over 25,000 SqFt of handmade Fireclay Tile!).

LaGuardia Airport Handmade Mosaic Tile Mural
Laura Owens, I 🍕 NY, 2020 Handmade glazed ceramic tiles and grout. Commissioned by LaGuardia Gateway Partners in partnership with Public Art Fund for LaGuardia Airport’s Terminal B. Courtesy of the artist; Sadie Coles HQ, London; and Galerie Gisela Capitan, Cologne.

Harold Curtis Brown

Interior of a guest suite at the Hotel Navarro, designed by Harold Curtis Brown--Portrait unavailable. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

While achievements in architecture began mounting as early as the end of the 19th century, many interiors of Black-built buildings were still being designed by white interior designers. In fact, the history of Black interior design is frustratingly opaque. Considered among the first Black American interior designers from what we do know, was Harold Curtis Brown.

Educated at the Boston School of Fine Arts and the New School of Design, Brown decorated for a period in Paris and then ran an art store in Washington D.C. before settling in New York and designing nightclubs.

Much of his work was for Black clients in Harlem and the Bronx but Brown did transcend race, in both appeal and appearance, and won contracts with white customers in Manhattan's upper-class neighborhoods. His most prestigious project was designing the interior of Central Park South’s Hotel Navarro which would go on to become one of the first Ritz Carlton hotels.

Brown vanished from the scene at the height of his success. According to at least one researcher, it’s believed he began passing as white to earn more money, an acknowledgment that access to industry does not preclude equality.

Meet Today's Leading Ladies

Sheila Bridges

sheila bridges
Sheila Bridges. Courtesy of sheilabridges.com

Sheila Bridges
is a modern icon in interior design. She holds degrees from Brown University and Parsons School of Design and studied decorative arts at Polimoda in Florence, Italy.

Since starting Sheila Bridges Design, Inc in 1994, Bridges has been a force, designing spaces for clients like Columbia and Princeton University, hosting an award-winning television show, and having her designs featured in the top retailers and museums of the United States.

Starting with a dream, a single client, and a fax machine, Bridges has made her mark not just with her mix of modern and traditionalist design elements and an appreciation for toile bordering on trademark, but as a Black woman in a notoriously white profession. Her ability to transform spaces goes beyond the physical, harnessing media and retail to transform the homogenous identity of her entire industry. You can follow Sheila's work here.

Tiara Hughes

Tiara Hughes, Founder and Executive Director of FIRST 500. Courtesy of I-NOMA.

Tiara Hughes
is the Founder and Executive Director of FIRST 500, a national research initiative that accurately records the history and accomplishments of licensed African-American women architects.

See more of today's emerging trailblazers, featured on FIRST 500's growing index of architect profiles.

Inspired by her natural talent in the third grade, Hughes always knew she’d grow up to be an architect. When she saw her first set of blueprints, her life plan seemed to be sketched out in front of her. But becoming an architect wasn’t a foregone conclusion. In her first architecture courses in high school and then at Drury University, Hughes noticed she was the only Black person and the only woman in virtually all of her classes.

When she started her career, she realized the entire profession had the same white male makeup of her education. At the time, just over 400 Black women were licensed architects and she set out to change that.

If there is no well to drink from, dig until you create one.”

Founded by Hughes in 2018, FIRST 500 will become a publication and network that connect the barrier breakers like Hughes and those that came before her with future generations to inspire them throughout their pathways to licensure and success. Since starting her advocacy, the number of licensed Black women architects has for the first time surpassed 500 and Hughes is determined to increase that figure infinitely while celebrating the accomplishments of Black female architects and the built environments they give us.

Read our full interview with Tiara Hughes.

Pascale Sablan

Pascale Sablan, Founder and Executive Director of Beyond the Built Environment. Courtesy of AIA.

Pascale Sablan
has been a force since starting her career as the 315th licensed Black female architect in the United States. Her work spans the globe with a fresh, contemporary feel, both in appearance and environmental sustainability.

Beyond her built accomplishments, it’s Sablan’s voice that is transforming spaces.

She is the Founder and Executive Director of Beyond the Built Environment, an organization committed to dismantling the injustice within the architectural community by elevating the accomplishments of Black trailblazers in her field and providing resources for the Black architects of the future.

Pascale has been named National Organization of Minority Architects’ member of the year, led her chapter to Chapter of the Year, and presided over a 25% membership increase of her New York Coalition.

In 2021, this forward-thinking architect took the seat as the newest president of the National Organization of Minority Architects. Dedicated to developing a more humane society, Pascale has shown an uncanny ability to harness both brick and mortar and the bully pulpit to transform our world for the better.

Ready to support Black women in architecture? Click to learn more and donate today.

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