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African-American Vernacular Architecture

Throughout history, African Americans have made a significant impact on architecture in the United States.  However, they have struggled to get to the point that they are at now. Until a few decades ago, African Americans were only a small part of the architecture profession.  Over time there have been several important members of the African American race that have made significant steps.

African Americans had a major role in building and architecture for the plantations in the south during the colonial era.  African Americans were brought from Africa to help with the colonial plantation system.   With them, they brought over useful skills such as woodworking and ironworking.  The knowledge of these skills made them useful on the colonial plantations.  Records show that early plantations such as Gippy Plantation in South Carolina and Destrehan Plantation in St. Charles Parish in Louisiana were built by African American slaves.  African American artisans also built the “African House” as well as the “Melrose House.”

       Melrose plantation house (Bank and Dozier, 1996, pg. 171).                    African House (Bank and Dozier, 1996, pg. 171).

Unfortunately, after the Civil War property was taken away from African Americans.  Construction and building by African Americans was halted.  Also, blacks were not allowed into the unions that many of the white people were now joining in the industrialized cities.  Independent construction was now becoming more scarce and education was becoming more important.  However, African Americans were not allowed into many of the institutes.  A couple of rare cases were Hampton Institute and Tuskegee Institute.  These two programs were made primarily to teach African American students to “go out and teach and lead their people.”  Hampton Institute of Virginia was founded in 1868.  The program offered courses that furthered the building skills of the students.  These skills were used in the building of many of the campus buildings.  Many buildings at Tuskegee Institute were also built by students under the supervision of the faculty.  Tuskegee Institute differed from Hampton in the fact that Tuskegee students were taught by a black faculty.  The goal of these two institutes was to try to get more African Americans back into the building profession and into the architecture profession.  Booker T. Washington, the founder of Tuskegee Institute, said, “We must have not only carpenters, but also architects; we must not only have people who do the work with the hand but persons who at the same time plan the work with the brain” (Bank and Dozier, 1996, pg.170).  Washington’s efforts were in response to the 1890 census that concluded that there were only forty-three African American architects.

Over the next couple of decades the number of African American architects would rise.  Many of the more famous African American architects studied or taught at  Tuskegee Institute.  Some of these names were Robert R. Taylor, Wallace A. Rayfield, and William Sidney Pittman.  Taylor and Rayfield both taught at Tuskegee and designed many of the campus buildings.  Rayfield later left to head the first black architectural firm in Birmingham.  Pittman also taught at Tuskegee but later left to become of the most prominent African American architects.  His designs dealt mainly with schools, libraries, and other public buildings.  John Lewis Wilson is another outstanding black architect.  His famous achievement is designing the first federal housing project in Harlem.  He was also the first black graduate from the School of Architecture at Columbia University in New York.

These architects as well as a few others established the stepping stones for African Americans in architecture.  After World War II, a couple of large projects were commissioned to black architects, paving the way for the future.  The contract for the Tuskegee Air Force Base went to McKissack & McKissack, a black architecture, engineering, and construction firm.  Then in 1943 the contract for the U.S. Navy Base in Long Beach was given to Allied Engineers, a black firm headed by Paul Williams.

Even though these contracts were being given to African American firms, education of blacks was still a problem.  African Amercians were limited to the choice of three schools for architecture: Howard, Hampton, and Tuskegee.  Howard University’s School of Architecture became accredited in 1949.  Then in 1954, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas ruled that black students may attend white architectural schools.  However, racial segregation could not be halted.  The segregation in schools was also hurting the number of blacks in the architectural profession.  The poor state of the architecture profession prompted Whitney M. Young, Jr. to stand up for all African Americans.  At the national convention of American Institute of Architects in 1968 he said,

                                “You are not a profession that has distinguished itself by your social
                                and civic contributions to the cause of civil rights, and I am sure that
                                does not come to you as a shock….  You are most distinguished by your
                                thunderous silence and your complete irrelevance….  You are employers,
                                you are key people in the planning of our cities today.  You share the
                                responsibility  for the mess we are in, in terms of the white noose around
                                the central city.  We didn’t just suddenly get this situation.  It was carefully
                                planned” (Bank and Dozier, 1996, pg. 175).

After Young’s speech, a couple of businesses started offering scholarships to black students.  However, at the time Howard University was still the only accredited black architecture school.  By the mid-1990’s the historically black colleges that offered accredited architecture degrees were: Howard University, Hampton University, Southern University, Tuskegee University, Florida A&M University, Morgan State University, Prairie View A&M University, and the University of the District of Columbia.  Young was credited with his accomplishments by the establishment of the Whitney M. Young, Jr. Citation Award.  The award is presented to an architect that achieves success along with a contribution to social responsibility.  Since Young’s social work, many groups have been established to promote education of new African American architects as well as students from other minority groups.  Two of these groups are the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA) and the AIA’s Minority Resources Committee (MRC).  The effort from these groups to get more African Americans into the profession has been tremendous.

However there are still effects from racial segregation.  In a 1991 survey only 877 black architects were registered in forty-three states.  African Americans only made up 7.5 percent of the AIA in 1993.  In addition, only 1 percent of the architecture profession was African American (Bank and Dozier, 1996).

Vernacular Architecture

The Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History defines vernacular architecture as the ordinary buildings and spaces constructed, shaped, or inhabited by a particular group of people, vernacular architecture characterizes a place by giving it a specific social identity.  African-American vernacular architecture is characterized by the plantation houses built during the colonial era.  It was discovered that slave houses had the same characteristics as the houses built in West and Central Africa.  Much of the African American identity was created on the plantation since 2.6 million blacks were living on plantations by 1860.  Within the plantations and communities, blacks created their own expressions.  They had their own music, literature, art, and religion.  All of these helped them achieve their own identity.  Within these communities, there were also certain types of housing associated with African Americans.  These types were the “pen”, the I-house, and the shotgun house.  The “pen” was a single room cabin that was often combined with other cabins.  The I-house was a house type that was two pens stacked on top of one another.  These houses were usually used to house four families.  The shotgun house was the main type of housing associated with African American culture.  This house is one room wide and three or four rooms deep.  In contemporary vernacular architecture, the influence of the slave communities as well as other black communities can be seen in the type of decorating with flowers and art that they use.  Much of the contemporary life can be associated with life on a southern plantation and the slavery experience (Vlach, 1996).

            Slave plantations at Savannah, Ga. (Vlach, 1996, pg. 183)                                    Slave plantation at Greenhill, Va. (Vlach, 1996, pg. 183)

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Document author(s) : Michael J. Benes, Michelle Hawkins, Beth Pagano
HTML by : Michael J. Benes, Michelle Hawkins, Beth Pagano
Last modified: 10-4-99