Black Architects that Made America Great

Black Architects from the 19th and 20th Centuries

Before the Civil War, blacks learned the building trade to benefit their owners, but after the Civil War, they passed their skills to their children and these budding architects would eventually attend school and lead the way for other black architects. One of these pioneer architects, Robert R. Taylor (1868 – 1942), became the first accredited black architect and a graduate of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1892. Booker T. Washington recruited him to establish the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Later, the school of architecture would be named the Robert R. Taylor School of Architecture and Construction Science (TSACS).

Julian Abel (1881-1950)

Other architects would follow such as Wallace A. Rayfield (1873 – 1941), Moses McKissack III (1879 – 1952), and Julian Abel (1881 – 1950). Many of these architects did not sign their work and did not receive credit for their efforts. Julian Abel was not given credit in his lifetime for the beautiful works of art on the Duke University campus such as the gothic Duke University Chapel. At the time he designed these buildings for the campus, Duke was a whites-only university. It would be the 1980s until Abel was given credit for his work at Duke University and in 2016, Duke named a campus quad after him. Rayfield was the second formally trained black architect and his buildings played an essential role in the Civil Rights Movement; his 16th Street Baptist Church (completed in 1911) was the site of the 1963 bomb that killed four black teenage girls. McKissack III established one of the earliest black-architecture firms in the U.S., today the firm, McKissack & McKissack managed the building of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C.

Norma Merrick Sklarek (1928 -2012) called the “Rosa Parks of architecture,” was one of the first black women in architecture; she co-founded one of the first women-architectural firms, Siegel-Sklarek-Diamond in 1985, with two other women-architects, Margot Siegel (1925 – ) and Katherine Diamond (1954 – ).

Marshall Purnell (1950-)

The twentieth century would include Paul R. Williams (1894 – 1980), the architect of the stars as well as designing the LAX Theme Building, and a significant architect for the city of Long Beach, California.  J. Max Bond ( 1935 – 2009) who was also involved with the National Museum of African American History and Culture; and Marshall Purnell (1950 – ) considered one of the most accomplished architects in United States today with projects that include Washington Convention Center, Washington Nationals Baseball Park, Washington NBA and NHL Venue Verizon Center, and the National Martin Luther King Memorial.

In 1930, there were only 60 registered black architects, but today, there are more than 2,278.

Paul R. Williams video

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First Black American Car Dealer

Homer B. Roberts

Homer B. Roberts was a WWI veteran and an electrical engineer. Not only was he the first black American car dealer but was also one of the first black retailing giants.

He created a cutting-edge campaign of “class and distinction almost describes our cars and customers” in the 1920s that preceded the Duesenberg elegant men and women campaign in the 1930s. Roberts knew that marketing the feeling of driving a car sold by him was as important as the car itself. He was a marketing genius.

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First Black Auto Manufacturer

F. D. Patterson

Frederick Douglass Patterson was the first manufacturer, owner, and operator of Greenfield-Patterson Automobile Company.  His first car debuted in 1915, built in Ohio, the car competed with the Model T by Henry Ford and cost $850. Patterson’s car was possibly more sophisticated than Henry Ford’s Model T but it could not match Ford’s manufacturing capability. So, Patterson, as so many other small independent car manufactures did, closed their doors.

Patterson recognized the opportunity to switch to production of buses, trucks and utility vehicles and changed his business name to Greenfield Bus Body Company. By 1939, this small manufacturing company closed its doors as it could no longer compete with major companies.

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Victor Young: Lamborghini Merchant & Media Mogul

Victor Young
“Young’s advice is learning a work ethic early, do not quit, do not let anyone discount you, find who wants your talent”

Last year a presentation was made to an after-school tutoring program for middle school students that shared the story of Victor Young, a Lamborghini merchant and media mogul. It was a huge success! The video was not about being a Lamborghini dealer; it was about how to achieve success while overcoming tremendous obstacles.

Created by Block Starz Music Television and produced by Frances Presley Rice and Bayer Mack, this video is encouraging to young people to help them understand their value and how important their individual brand is. Young’s advice is learning a work ethic early, do not quit, do not let anyone discount you, find who wants your talent, and do not spend time trying to sell your ideas to someone not interested in them.  Finally, he says that we all have value and talent, find it and develop it. Hard work and working smart are the keys to success.

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Robert S. Abbott: The Chicago Defender

Robert S. Abbott
“America’s race prejudice must be destroyed.”

Robert Sengstacke Abbott (1870 – 1940) was born of freeman parents and was given his middle name by his stepfather at the age of one. Abbott studied at Claflin University, Hampton Institute, and Kent Law School. He received his law degree in 1899, but could not find work due to discrimination and felt that he could defend his people better as a newspaper publisher and editor. He worked at his stepfather’s newspaper, the Woodville Times, to learn the trade as a printer.

“If you must die, take at least one with you.”

He founded the Chicago Defender with a 25-cent investment in 1905. The paper became known as America’s first daily black newspaper and was the most widely circulated black newspaper in the country. Circulation reached 50,000 by 1916, 125,000 by 1918, and more than 200,000 by the early 1920s. A crucial part of Abbott’s marketing network was black railroad porters. The porters sold and distributed the Chicago Defender on the trains and helped its rapid growth through the 1920s.  The Chicago Defender made Abbott one if the first self-made millionaires.

Abbott set a provocative tone in his newspaper and gave a voice to blacks to fight racism, segregation, discrimination, and disenfranchisement. He wrote, “America’s race prejudice must be destroyed.” The Chicago Defender would report on violence against blacks, struggles against black workers and lynchings. In 1915, the paper’s anti-lynching slogan was, “If you must die, take at least one with you.” He would also campaign against Jim Crow laws and encouraged blacks to move from the South to Chicago as well as other cities and in the North and the Midwest. He was credited with the great migration of 1.5 million rural blacks from 1917 to 1940, 100,000 of them in Chicago alone.

Junius G. Groves: Potato King of the World

Junius G. Groves

Junius G. Groves (1859 – 1925) was perhaps the most successful black farmer and is referred to as the “potato king of the world.” Groves was born a slave in Green County, Kentucky in 1859. He was made free by the proclamation of Abraham Lincoln. In 1879, he was part of the “Kansas Exodus” black people who migrated from the South to Kansas. There were so many “Kansas Exodusters” that labor was cheap and jobs were hard to find. Groves found employment on a farm at forty cents a day.

Later his employer offered him a portion of land to cultivate on shares of nine acres. Groves would plant, cultivate, and harvest crop for the price of one third of the harvest. As he and his wife worked hard, they earned money for a milk cow and money saved for planting another crop. By the third year, Groves and his wife rented sixty-six acres of good farmland near Edwardsville, Kansas, planted potatoes, raised pigs and fowls, sold milk and butter. By 1884, they bought their own farm of eighty acres and continued to prosper. They bought the fourth farm then the fifth farm and built a beautiful home at a cost of $5,000. They had eleven children, three girls and eight boys. Two girls and one boy went to Kansas Agricultural College.

Why was Groves called “the potato king?”  In one year alone produced 721,500 bushels of white potatoes, averaging 245 bushels to the acre. This amount of potatoes was 121,500 bushels more than any other individual grower in the world had, at that time.

In speaking of what they have been able to accomplish, Mr. Groves said in a very modest way, “I think that our success shows that a Negro can and will make his way if given a chance. If we could start with but seventy-five cents and succeed as we have, other people of our race can do the same thing.” (The Negro in Business by Booker T. Washington, published 1907)