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Did African Americans lose respect in the architecture industry?

Architecture building drawings from Mahanakhon Ole Scheeren, OMA Thailand.
Architecture building drawings from Mahanakhon Ole Scheeren, OMA Thailand.
Mahanakhon Ole Scheeren

Definitely since America’s colonial era, Blacks have influenced America’s architecture. Their influence on American architecture indirectly came about because of a heavy reliance on slavery needed to help build the United States during those times. Documents show slave involvement in the building of Magnolia in Plaquemine’s Paris in 1785, the Gippy Plantation in South Carolina, and Windsor Hall in Greenville, Georgia- but it’s the well-known places like ‘Wall Street’ and your Capitol Black slaves don’t commonly get credit for. This certainly isn’t to say Blacks were the only group to build America, but since all White ethnicities and Blacks want to fight over who built America, then actually all ethnicities did so therefore relish in that all ethnicities and races built the United States. Now that we have established that every natural American’s ancestors built America we can now move on to the plantation system relying heavily on the slave artisans by way of Africa.

It’s common knowledge, or at least we should hope that it is common knowledge, that there were free Blacks too in those days that along with Black slaves, even helped to design and build the antebellum South or ‘antebellum period.’ Okay, what is a ‘free Black’ exactly? In the United States at one point in history, a ‘free Black’ was a ‘free negro’ whose legal status in the territory of the United States was not of an African slave- although many illegal actions made even the ‘free Blacks’ sold into slavery or back into slavery.

Free Blacks like the man named Charles, whose skills as a carpenter, mason, and wood worker contracted with such men like Robin de Logny in 1787 to build the Destrehan Plantation in St. Charles Parish, LA and all throughout the confederacy period there were Blacks designing plantations. Louis Metoyer, a man who studied architecture in Paris, France designed the Melrose House in Isle Breville, LA.

The exploding period of African Americans designing, constructing, and building in the States came to an abrupt halt after the Civil War. Increasing industrialization, developing trade unions in the North that excluded Blacks, and the economic depression that accompanied Reconstruction largely eliminated the independent Black artisan and was the cause for the great decline of Blacks’ role in building America.

In addition to the effects from the Civil War handicapping and crushing the likes of all artisans from all ethnicities and races, it was America’s Civil War that took any hope that a craftsman may have had to make a living. Then if the Civil War didn’t handicap and crush independent contractors and artisans, then later a man by the name of Ford would just eliminate, destroy, and completely knock-out any hope that people may have had of making ‘an independent living’ after the North brought in ‘the industrialized way’ that America would use since then.

Until the 20th century, education in the United States became more formalized, making it even more difficult for a craftsman to build a structure independently- although no formal licensing or professional identification was yet instituted in America. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) would begin to form the first formal architecture program ever in 1867. The Freedmen’s Bureau would later follow MIT’s suit, and one year later the Hampton Institute to train African-Americans was founded, including many former slaves amongst ‘free Blacks.’ The Freedmen’s Bureau program would later be the curriculum model for the Tuskegee Institute that would later be responsible for Black architects- and one of the first Blacks to graduate from MIT, Robert R. Taylor, would head the architectural program.

But where did the system fail people inside of the industry, which would hurt African Americans a great deal? What happened to Blacks like Paul Williams, despite of much discouragement from his high school White teacher, worked hard to graduate from the University of Southern California’s School of Architecture who then went on to considerable fame as he designed homes for Betty Grable, Frank Sinatra, Cary Grant, and many other Hollywood stars. Los Angeles you should know Williams quite well, as his design is very much a part of LAX (Los Angeles Airport).

In a time where you had very few African American architects in the entire U.S. you had a man by the name of Clarence Wigington become the well respected architect all across the Midwestern part of the United States. Saint Paul, Minnesota would later hire him to be the nation’s first Black municipal architect.

Unfortunately World War II would be the last era that we would see African Americans having a great impact on architecture in America. And in 1968, Whitney Young, Jr., a civil rights leader, would start addressing the continued racism in the architecture profession when speaking at the national convention of the American Institute of Architects (AIA). Young’s important speech would be the cause of the Ford Foundation establishing scholarships to increase the numbers of Blacks in the field.

The recession of the mid-1970s would later cripple the entire architectural industry because of President Nixon’s freeze on construction of low-income housing. But soon after William Coleman, who was a Black lawyer from Philadelphia, established a landmark affirmative action program that would mandate that 15% of federal funds for mass transit projects be awarded to minority firms.

Unfortunately, it would be the people who would pay dearly during the Bush Sr. and Reagan Presidency eras, because of a withdrawal of federal support for low-to-moderate-income housing that also set back African-American progress in the architectural industry. In 1991, the directory of African-American Registered Architects identified about 877 Black architects in 43 states, and out of that number, only 49 were women; and later in 1993, Black architects would only make up 7.5% of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), and it hasn’t become better today. Blacks still are hurting in the field because of the racial division between design and production at the professional level, which actually mimics the same racial divide that’s seen at the academic level too, where large majority firms where larger numbers of Black architects work on the production or technical side of building rather than in the design studios.

It’s happening across the country, African American college students are in similar predicaments, with the all too common scenario of just one African American student being in an Architectural class of 40. This issue isn’t unique to one college campus, but across America only 1,444, or 5.3 percent, of the 27,478 students in programs certified by the National Architectural Accrediting Board identify themselves as Black or African American. The numbers get much smaller as these aspiring architects climb the professional ladder; of the 104,300 registered architects in the United States, roughly 1,860 of them—less than 2 percent—are Black.

These numbers are similar to those in other professional degree programs, but lower even. In 2010, 7.2 percent of first-year medical students were Black, reports the Association of American Medical Colleges; numbers for Black law students in 2008 were about the same, according to a study conducted by Conrad Johnson, a Columbia Law School professor.

When it comes to the scarcity of Black architecture students, there is no single cause or simple solution. Various socio-economic and historical factors contribute, ranging from high tuition costs to various other social factors.

“Given the country's multi-cultural makeup, it's an issue that should concern everyone. Because our work is in service to society, we should have professionals who reflect that diversity,” says architect Toni Griffin, head of the J. Max Bond Center at the City College of New York. The more we embrace this, the richer our buildings, communities, and cities can be.”

A number of architecture colleges offer scholarships for minority students and host programs, such as architecture summer camps, which are aimed at middle and high school students.

“You have to reach them early on, so they're thinking about the right classes to take in high school,” notes Kathy Dixon, president of the National Organization of Minority Architects. Dixon, whose father is an architect, earned degrees from both, Howard University and UCLA. Today, Dixon is one of only 290 Black female architects in America. Dixon says, “There are two strikes against you,” she says of her gender and race. “You have to be more determined and more focused. You can't let anyone deter you from your end goal. This is a difficult field.”

Historically, affluent White men have dominated the architecture profession. High educational costs and relatively low starting salaries have discouraged many students of economically disadvantaged backgrounds from pursuing an architecture degree. “We're still recovering from generations of people who were disenfranchised, who didn't have the opportunity for an education,” says Namdi Alexander, a Masters architectural student at the University of Minnesota. To compound the problem, “being a nerdy architecture drafter guy doesn't fall into the spectrum of cool that most African-American kids grow up with. The onus is on our culture and parents to alter the idea that hip-hop and basketball are the only viable career options.”

For the African Americans who do go on to pursue architecture degrees, relationships between student and professor can be covered in racial undertones. Alexander, a former architecture student who’s now 35, remembers a White professor with whom Alexander was on good terms with saying during a project critique that it appeared Alexander was trying to please her rather than find his own answer. Alexander recalls the professor saying, “Is that what your parents taught you- to always please the white folk?” He complained to a minority professor, in which the other professor, who was mortified, apologized. Still, “it was hard to wash the taste of something like that out of my mouth,” Alexander, who is 35, says. “I can handle it, but what if it was a younger guy or girl- would that be enough to derail them from their dream?”

Students may also be discouraged by the absence of African American culture in most design curricula. “Throughout my architectural education, my own cultural history was absent,” said Mabel Wilson, a professor at Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, during Black Studies in Art and Design Education conference held at Parsons the New School for Design. “It was all white Modernist boxes and Italian palazzos.”

Universities like Alabama A&M, Florida A&M, Hampton University, Howard University, Prairie View A&M, University of the District of Columbia, and Morgan State University all offer an African American focus in their Planning, Architecture, Landscape Architecture, and Construction Management programs. If a non-HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) is not of interest to you then other Universities such as Boston University, the Maryland Institute College of Art, MIT, and University of Michigan, offer African American courses as part of their design programs- these colleges at least offer one course in African American studies in the architecture program. Besides adding more African American focused architectural courses to the architecture program, professors have to learn new information and expand their worldview.

Many universities also give students hands-on experience in minority communities. The Illinois school of Architecture at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has long committed to working in cities such as East St. Louis, Illinois, where blacks account for 98 percent of the population. In 2005, the University of Michigan- Ann Arbor, started the Detroit Community Design Center, which offers free or low-cost design services to area non-profits.

In many cases, you must create your own college experience, so in this case some Black students are creating their own paths- and go into organizations such as the Society of Multicultural Architects and Designers and the National Organization of Minority Architects.

In America, where it can be acknowledged that the very name "Wall Street" was born of slavery, with enslaved Africans building a wall in 1653 to protect Dutch settlers from Indian raids, but there’s a lack of acknowledgement for the African American architectural influence in the American university system. (This walkway and wooden fence, made up of pointed logs and running river to river, later was known as Wall Street, the home of world finance.) Both, free Africans and enslaved Africans were largely responsible for the construction of the early city; first by clearing land, then by building a fort, mills, bridges, stone houses, the first city hall, the docks, the city prison, Dutch and English churches, the city hospital and Fraunces Tavern. Even at the corner of Wall Street and Broadway, Trinity Church sits on the corner because of Africans.

In America, where the former Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi can mention in her remarks at the December 2, 2008 speech dedicated to the Capitol Visitors Center that, “The Capitol was built by slaves. Today, I want to talk about the fact that it’s so appropriate that, though long overdue, this Capitol Visitors Center is ready for 2009, which is the 200th anniversary, the bicentennial of the birth of Abraham Lincoln, the great emancipator” but the recognition of Africans building, constructing, and being a part historically of America’s architecture is greatly forgotten or ignored.

The very idea that architecture environment is a reflection of societal attitudes toward race has only recently found a place in architectural discourse. It was in the last 10 years that books, articles, conferences, and classes exploring race in architecture have focused on identifying and analyzing African American architects and their work. One of the most common rationales for this addition was that the contributions of African Americans in architecture had been widely ignored and invisible, and by bringing the African American architectural legacy to the forefront, a broader discussion could be had.

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