Highlighting History’s First & Most Notable Black Architects

Highlighting History’s First & Most Notable Black Architects

 “Architecture should be working on improving the environment of people in their homes, in their places of work, and their places of recreation.”

      – Norma Sklarek (1926 – 2012)

In light of this month being a time where we acknowledge, celebrate, and commemorate Black history and its many figures, as well as educate ourselves regarding these matters, we felt it not only appropriate but necessary to shed some light upon some of the design industry’s most accomplished Black architects and designers.

Before jumping right into the spotlights, it’s important to note these stats:  

As of 2019, 116,242 licensed architects in the United States construct the homes we live in, the schools we learn in, the buildings we work in, and so much more within our suburbs and cities (NCARB). Of those 116,242 licensed architects, only a narrow 2% are Black. That’s only 2,325 in the United states.

What about designers? According to the 2019 AIGA Design Census, only 3% of designers across all mediums identify as Black. That’s only 23,582 out of 786,071 total. 

It’s important to recognize Black architects and designers given the fact that they make up such a small percentage of a larger group, playing a crucial role in designing the roofs that stand above our heads, alongside the spaces we take up as a whole. Also, in recognizing the larger system that suppresses Black voices and contributes to making accreditation and overall success more difficult to achieve, we can begin to identify the flaws within that system, and work towards change little by little.

We decided to highlight some of the industry’s most acclaimed Black architects, beginning with the very first: Paul Revere Williams

By the time he was just four years old, both of his parents had passed away. Fostered throughout his youth, he attended Polytechnic High School where he was heavily advised to steer away from architecture. Upon persevering, he proceeded to graduate from USC in 1919 as the first Black graduate from that school. 

Licensure laws had been passed in 1897, and it took 24 years for the first Black architect, Williams, to obtain that official title in 1921. He went on to cultivate his own practice in 1922, become licensed to practice in New York and Washington DC in 1933, and work solo post-Pearl Harbor in 1941. Upon steering towards his solo career, he closed his Los Angeles office and collaborated with architect Quincy Jones on 20 known projects. One of his most well-known projects includes the Palm Springs Tennis Club. Williams retired in 1973, and he was awarded the nation AIA Gold Medal in 2017 (US Modernist).

The first Black female to become a licensed architect in the United States was Beverly Loraine Greene, who, at 27 years old, became licensed in 1942.

 Pursuing licensure in architecture as a Black individual comes with its preexisting obstacles; not only did Greene face these, but the ones that come alongside being a woman.

She spent a lot of time hitting many barriers in Chicago, with no clients willing to hire a Black architect, despite having the proper licensing. Upon facing rejection time and time again, she moved to New York City. This turned out to be a good move for her, as she continued on to collaborate with some of the industry’s most famed modernist designers, such as Marcel Breuer.

Another one of history’s most powerful Black architects include Harlem-born Norma Sklarek, born in 1926. Similar to Beverly Loraine Green, Sklarek faced both obstacles in racism and sexism. Sklarek was the only Black female student pursuing architecture at Barnard College and Columbia University in New York. 

She holds many “firsts” in architecture, of which were not obtained easily. These include being New York’s first licensed Black female architect in 1954, the first Black female constituent belonging to the AIA, the first black female architect belonging to California in 1962, the first black female architect to be titled a Fellow by the AIA in 1980, and the first black female to establish the United States’s largest woman-owned architecture firm in 1985.