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Six Black Architects Who Broke Down Barriers to Build a Better Future

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Throughout history, Black architects have faced countless obstacles when pursuing an education and career in their field. Architecture has long been dominated by white men, leaving little room for minorities and women to thrive. However, many Black Americans have worked hard to break down the racial barriers in architecture and have gone on to design some of the most admired structures in the country.

As we enter Black History Month, it’s necessary to reflect on the history of our industry and celebrate the individuals who broke down barriers so that future generations could excel. We’re highlighting six Black architects who helped to pioneer a path for future generations.

Robert Robinson Taylor (1868-1942)

On June 8, 1868, Taylor was born in Wilmington, North Carolina. In September of 1888, young Taylor traveled to Boston to sit for the entrance examination to MIT. He became the first black student to enroll at MIT to study architecture. Taylor never failed a course and earned honors in architectural history, trigonometry, applied mechanics, and differential calculus. He received Loring Scholarship for two academic years, and he could have possibly been the first recipient. The scholarship was one of the many available to students at MIT who had superior performance and had shown potential through hard work.
After graduation, Taylor joined Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, headed by the founder, Booker T. Washington. Some of Taylor’s assignments included the planning and construction of new buildings on campus. He also developed engineering and architectural programs at the institute. In total, he designed 25 buildings on campus.

Some of the buildings Taylor designed include:

  • Thrasher Hall/ Science Hall
  • Tuskegee Chapel
  • The Oaks
  • Home of the Tuskegee University president
  • The Colored Masonic Temple
  • Carnegie libraries at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas

Taylor became the first African-American architect to be accredited in the United States. Additionally, his contributions to the architecture profession and education are immeasurable.

2. William Sidney Pittman- (1875-1958)

Pittman was a renowned black American architect and a civil rights advocate. He was born in Montgomery, Alabama, in April 1875 and attended segregated public schools in Alabama as he assisted his uncle in his carpentry workshop throughout his childhood. The woodwork skills he acquired would later afford him a lucrative future.
At 17, Mr. Pittman joined Tuskegee University, majoring in mechanical and architectural drawing. After his graduation in 1987, Booker T. Washington sponsored his further education at the Drexel Institute in Pennsylvania, where he graduated with a diploma in architectural drawing in 1900.
After graduating, William went back to Tuskegee Institute, where he was hired to oversee the institution’s construction and led the architectural drawing department. Additionally, he worked as an assistant professor, teaching Architecture and Mechanical Drawing.
In 1905, William relocated to Washington and joined architect John Anderson Lankford. In October of the same year, he launched his private architectural practice. His office was the first black American Architectural Firm in the United States, located at 494 Louisiana Ave NW.
William Sidney Pittman took the lead in the following projects:

  • Trinity AME Zion Church in Washington
  • The Negro Plaza at Jamestown Exposition
  • The Garfield Elementary Public School
  • The 12th Street Young Men’s Christian Association Plaza 
  • These and many other projects sold Pittman’s expertise, and he received enormous calls to commission other projects.

In 1912 he relocated to Dallas, Texas, where he continued his architectural work and designed many notable buildings.

3. The McKissack brothers (1905 – 1968)

McKissack stands as the first African-American-owned architectural company in Nashville, Tennessee. Currently, the firm still operates as a family-owned business. Established in 1905 by two Brothers, Moses & Calvin L. McKissack, the company initially had operations in Tennessee but later expanded its commissions to the entirety of the South. They were contracted to build the Beebe Memorial CME Church in Washington in 1927.
The firm’s founder, Moses, schooled at Pulaski High-school while Calvin joined Barrows high school in Massachusetts. After high school, they both joined Fisk University and acquired architectural degrees. Before becoming business partners, each had their construction and building achievements. Moses constructed numerous buildings in Alabama, as Calvin based his operations in Texas and Tennessee.
The firm took part in church-related architectural work with their expertise attracting the construction industry’s attention in Nashville, Tennesse.
They both had a hand in the following construction projects:

  • St. John’s Baptist Church
  • Capers C.M.E. Church
  • Hubbard House
  • Morris Memorial Building

After the passing of the founders, the company was kept in the family and is currently run by Moses’ granddaughter, Cheryl McKissack Daniel.

4. Paul Revere Williams (1894–1980)

Williams was a gifted African-American architect born in Los Angeles, California, on February 18, 1894. After both of his parents passed away due to TB, he was placed in a foster home around the age of 4.
In high school, Williams faced a great deal of discrimination from both peers and teachers. One teacher advised him not to pursue a career in architecture, stating that “a Black architect would not get any job in a white community, and the small black community would not offer any meaningful job.”
However, Williams ignored these discouragements and believed in his skills. He pursued an architectural education and worked with some of the leading design firms in Los Angeles.
Williams studied architecture at the University of Southern California and was certified as a building contractor in 1915. Later in 1921, he was licensed as an architect in California, becoming the first Black American to join AIA in 1923.

Some of the buildings he designed include:

  • MCA Building that won the AIA Award of Merit
  • Theme Building
  • Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Building
  • Beverly Hills Hotel Redesign

Williams was a prolific architect and was nicknamed the “Architect of the Stars.” Despite his great achievements, at the pinnacle of his career, he was not welcomed into the buildings he designed on the basis of his race.

5. Norma Merrick Sklarek (1926-2012)

Sklarek was born on April 15, 1926, in Harlem, New York. Her parents had immigrated from Trinidad and Tobago. She grew up in Brooklyn and Harlem and attended Hunter College High school, where she excelled in science and math.
Sklarek joined Barnard College for one year to gain the required minimum one-year study of liberal arts for admission to Columbia University. She was admitted and pursued a degree in Architecture.
She graduated in 1950 and was the only Black woman in her class. After graduating, she faced severe discrimination when searching for work and was turned down by 15 firms. However, she overcame both sexism and racism to become the first Black-American woman architect licensed in New York. In 1959, she became the first woman of color to be admitted as an AIA member. She also became the first Black-American female architect in California in 1962.

Some of the buildings she designed include:

  • Fox Plaza in San Francisco, California
  • Embassy of the US in Tokyo, Japan
  • San Bernardino City Hall in CA
  • California Mart in Los Angeles, CA
  • Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles, CA

In 1980, she was elected as a member of the College of Fellows AIA due to her exceptional influence in the profession, becoming the first black female in AIA. She also became the first-ever female in the Los Angeles AIA chapter to receive such honor.

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