Building on Strong Foundations

Celebrating Black Leaders in Architecture and Construction
Written by Robert Hoshowsky

The timing of the launch of the new Afro Canadian Contractors Association (ACCA) on February 1st fittingly coincided with the beginning of Black History Month in 2021. Honouring the legacy of Black Canadians through festivities and events, the theme that cold February during COVID was “The Future is Now.” For ACCA, it was appropriate and necessary, especially considering world events at the time.

A not-for-profit Association, ACCA works to boost the presence of BIPOC—Black, Indigenous and People of Colour—contractors and construction companies across Canada. Discussions surrounding the creation of ACCA several years before the launch were put on hold owing to the pandemic, then accelerated in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer on May 25, 2020. The group aims to help break down barriers faced by Black contractors new to the industry and see established businesses secure larger projects.

Breaking barriers
Despite the wealth of talented Black contractors, designers, architects, and craftspeople, obstacles remain. Systemic racism is still a factor in the construction industry, with Black-owned firms sometimes being dismissed or overlooked for projects. At its most vile, hatred was on public display. Over the past few years, dozens of nooses have been found at construction sites across North America in recent years, an ugly reminder of the history of lynching, especially in America’s south after the Civil War. Sometimes, more than one noose was found at the same building site, in areas where Black construction workers were active.

In the United States, one organization leading the way is the National Association of Minority Contractors. Founded in 1969 in Oakland, California, at the height of the civil rights movement, NAMC is the oldest minority-owned construction trade association in the U.S. Through its local chapters, the Association works in collaboration with members and strategic and corporate partnerships on initiatives including advocacy, contractor development training, and other opportunities.

“We have come a long way as a race from an historical perspective,” said Dan Moncrief, III, NAMC National President, in a media statement. “But recent events such as the murder of George Floyd and too many others to name, coupled with the impact of COVID-19, suggest we have a long road ahead of us. More than ever, NAMC is committed to addressing past wrongs against all minorities and minority construction contractors. NAMC will work to educate and increase awareness surrounding social inequalities in general, and contracting and economic opportunities specifically. BLACK LIVES MATTER.”

According to NAMC, over 50 million of the 160 million working in the U.S. make their living in the construction industry (over 31 percent), with African-Americans representing 8.5 million (17 percent) workers nationally.

Past meets present
When we think of famous architects past and present, names like Frank Lloyd Wright, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Philip Johnson and Frank Gehry come to mind; despite their architectural achievements, few think of Black architects, many of them pioneers responsible for spectacular structures across America. All builders, architects and designers owe a debt to the men and women who came before them, leading the way with their imagination and tireless determination.

In 1971, a dozen African-American architects from across the nation joined forces to create the National Organization of Minority Architects, better known as NOMA. A professional organization aimed at advancing Black architects, NOMA, like NAMC, took a stance after the death of George Floyd and other racist incidents. In mid-2020, the Organization revised and released its new mission statement to read: “NOMA’s mission, rooted in a rich legacy of activism, is to empower our local chapters and membership to foster justice and equity in communities of color through outreach, community advocacy, professional development, and design excellence.”

NOMA also launched its 12-week paid architectural summer internship, the NOMA Foundation Fellowship. Created in partnership with the AIA Large Firm Roundtable (LFRT), the Fellowship matches students and recent graduates with top firms across America.

Architectural legacy
The history of architecture would be incomplete without acknowledging the contribution of the Black men and women responsible not only for homes but larger institutional buildings, including museums, libraries, government buildings, and churches. Attending the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) from 1888 to 1892, Robert R. Taylor earned honours in an array of subjects, from architectural history to differential calculus and trigonometry. A visionary, Taylor’s final architectural course project was “Design for a Soldiers’ Home,” a nursing home for aging and infirm veterans of the Civil War.

A trailblazer, Taylor became not only MIT’s first Black graduate but also America’s first accredited African-American architect. Designing the campus of the private Black land-grant Tuskegee University (formerly Tuskegee Institute), he became one of its first faculty members. A prominent architect for over 40 years, Taylor designed the Carnegie Library, The George Washington Carver Museum (formerly Landry), the Prince Hall Masonic Temple, the Armstrong Science Building, and other well-known structures. He passed away in 1942 during services in the Tuskegee Chapel. Designed by Taylor, the chapel was built almost entirely by students between 1896 and 1898 out of 1,200,000 Alabama clay bricks.

Many buildings designed by Taylor are still standing decades after they were created. Along with his impressive portfolio, Taylor’s legacy includes naming the Taylor School of Architecture and Construction Science at Tuskegee University after him, and a 2015 Black Heritage U.S. postal stamp bearing his likeness.

Far from alone in his achievements, history’s Black architects include Taylor, Wallace Augustus Rayfield, William Sidney Pittman, Paul Revere Williams, and many others. Another pioneer, Beverly Lorraine Greene, was not only the first female member of the student chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers, but its sole Black member.

Greene later became the first African-American woman licensed as an architect in the U.S., and was employed at the first architectural firm spearheaded by an African-American in Chicago. Although she was just 41 years old when she died in 1957, Greene’s accomplishments include working on designs with Hungarian-born modernist and furniture designer Marcel Breuer for the UNESCO United Nations Headquarters in Paris, and some buildings for New York’s University Heights Campus.

The next generation
In Canada, another organization leading the way today is BAIDA. Founded in 2020, the Black Architects + Interior Designers Association “is a community organization made up of students, interior designers, and architects dedicated to supporting diversity, equity, and inclusion in the profession of architecture and interior design through mentorship and community engagement.” By being united in its mission, BAIDA addresses issues including a lack of diversity in the architecture and design sectors, with the hope of minimizing the effects of discrimination while creating “opportunities for other minorities within architecture and design.”

Throughout history, in the face of staggering challenges and adversity, Black architects, designers, and construction leaders have built on the solid foundations of the past. Today, those following in their footsteps have much to be proud of.

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