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Research project spotlights
African-American architects from U. of I.
Mitchell, News Editor
note: Dreck is the correct spelling of the architectural historian cited
in the third paragraph.
photo to enlarge
T. Bailey was the first African-American graduate
of the U. of I. School of Architecture. He received
a bachelor of science degree in architectural
engineering in 1904 and an honorary master’s degree in
— After Rodney Howlett graduates from the University of Illinois
at Urbana-Champaign with a master’s degree in architecture, he
hopes to return to his home base near St. Louis to design churches.
In the meantime, he’s devoted countless hours to collaborating
on the design of a Web site aimed at spreading a different brand of
good news. The site focuses on the noteworthy, but little known, achievements
of the U.
of I. School of Architecture’s African-American alumni.
The project recently sprouted offline legs. Through the end of February,
a reformatted, interactive version is featured in the historical portion
of the exhibit “Architecture:
Pyramids to Skyscrapers” at the Museum of Science and Industry
in Chicago. The exhibit, curated by architectural historian Dreck Wilson,
was organized as part of the museum’s 2006 Black Creativity Program.
According to the museum’s Web site, the exhibit was designed to
introduce museum-goers to “historical and contemporary African
and African American architectural visionaries whose creations define
and shape the world we live in today.”
Before taking a course at the U. of I. with architecture professor Kathryn
Anthony, author of “Designing for Diversity: Gender, Race and
Ethnicity in the Architectural Profession” (U. of I. Press, 2001),
Howlett said he could name only one African-American architect. Now,
he’s familiar with dozens of them and proud to walk in their footsteps.
“I learned that the University of Illinois has trained and raised
up more African-American architects than any university in the United
States except for the historically black colleges and universities,”
“I hope that after visiting the site people of all cultural backgrounds
can name at least five African-American architects from memory,”
Howlett said. “That would be a huge accomplishment.”
To date, more than 100 alumni have been identified and documented on
the Web site.
Howlett’s work was part of a team effort that included the contributions
of former architecture student Tebogo Schultz, current doctoral candidate
Nicholas Watkins and Web designer Brian Martinez. The team worked under
Anthony’s direction. The initial work was funded by a grant awarded
by the Brown Jubilee Commemoration Committee in conjunction with a yearlong
campus celebration of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown
v. Board of Education’s ruling to outlaw racial segregation in
the nation’s public schools.
photo to enlarge
Bath House and Sanitarium in Hot Springs, Ark.
archival and demographic material as well as survey responses from living
alumni and current students. Along with individual histories, the Web
site and exhibit include photographs of buildings designed by U. of
I. alumni; archival materials from school publications that provide
clues about race relations through the years, within the school, on
the U. of I. campus and in the surrounding communities; and personal
insights, anecdotes and recollections intended to inform and inspire
current and future generations of African-American architects.
The project also
references the U. of I.’s rich architectural history in general,
which dates to 1870. The university was only the second in the nation
to offer a program in architectural studies, and boasts the first graduate,
Nathan C. Ricker, in 1873.
photo to enlarge
from the Pythian Bath House.
Its first African-American
graduate was Walter T. Bailey, who received a bachelor of science degree
in architectural engineering in 1904 and an honorary master’s
degree in 1910. Bailey assisted in the planning of Champaign’s
Colonel Wolfe School before being appointed head of the mechanical industries
department at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, where he supervised planning
design and construction of several campus buildings. He later designed
the Mosaic State Temple Building and Pythian Theater Building in Little
Rock, Ark., and the Pythian Bath House and Sanitarium in Hot Springs,
photo to enlarge
African-American graduate of the school was Beverly Greene, the first
African-American woman to receive a bachelor’s degree in architectural
engineering, in 1936. Greene went on to receive a master’s degree
from the U. of I. in city planning in 1937 and a master’s degree
in architecture from Columbia University in 1945. She broke through
both gender and race barriers in 1938 when she was hired by the Chicago
Housing Authority, and is believed to be the first African-American
woman to receive a license to practice architecture in the United States.
Like Howlett, Watkins said he learned a great deal from his experience
working on the project.
“I’m not African American, so I didn’t go in with
a preconceived feeling. It took going down to the University Archives
and seeing images of Beverly amidst a sea of white male faces to appreciate
the history. I had the feeling that segregation and racism were more
of a quiet thing – subversive in their quietness … cancerous.”
of Illinois Photo
professor Kathryn Anthony, who contributed a co-authored
chapter on African Americans’ “legacy
of firsts” at the U. of I. architecture school
to the forthcoming book “Remembering Brown
at Fifty: The University of Illinois Commemorates
Brown v. Board of Education” (U. of I. Press),
said she hopes the Web project and museum exhibit
serve a purpose that goes beyond simply bringing
buried history to the surface.
Anthony, who contributed
a co-authored chapter with Watkins on African Americans’ “legacy
of firsts” at the U. of I. architecture school to the forthcoming
book “Remembering Brown at Fifty: The University of Illinois Commemorates
Brown v. Board of Education” (U. of I. Press), said she hopes
the Web project and museum exhibit serve a purpose that goes beyond
simply bringing buried history to the surface.
“The overall message I hope it will convey is to light a spark
– to capture the imagination and to inspire potential students
and others who find this information, especially African-American schoolchildren
who may be motivated by the information they find here, to pursue a
career in architecture.”
That’s important, she said, because “despite the gains made
by the historic Brown v. Board of Education court decision in the past
half-century, the number of African Americans in architectural education
and practice still remains astonishingly low, particularly in comparison
to counterparts in professions in law and medicine.”
Among the problems that need to be addressed, she noted, is one of representation.
In “The Canon and the Void: Gender, Race and Architectural History
Texts,” an article just published in the Journal of Architectural
Education, Anthony and doctoral student Meltem O. Gurel document their
examination of history texts assigned at 14 leading architecture schools.
Despite lip service within the field regarding “the importance
of women and African Americans as critics, creators and consumers of
the built environment,” Anthony noted, “our analysis of
these history texts revealed that contributions of women remain only
marginally represented in the grand narrative of architecture. And for
the most part, African Americans are omitted altogether.”
The continued exclusion of these architects and their contributions
from the canon does little to encourage women and minorities to pursue
careers in the field, she said.
And no one brings that point home for Anthony better than Howlett, reflecting
on what he learned through the Web-site design project and coursework
with his U. of I. professor.
“Just being able to name African-American architects has had a
great effect on me personally,” Howlett said. “In order
to succeed, you have to see someone who looks like you.
“I hope that people, especially African-American youth, walk away
(after viewing the Web site or exhibit) knowing that they can do anything
that they put their minds to. Most of the older alumni went through
the program when segregation was at an all-time high, and they still
made it through. We minorities in current-day society should take a
lesson from them. Success is the honor we pay those who have gone before