This Black History Month, BLAC DC is shining a light on some of the amazing Black architects who have pioneered the field of architecture and helped build our beautiful District. The history of Black architects in D.C. is important because it was often the case that only Black architects were dedicated enough to create safe and artistic buildings for the Black population of D.C. to live and work in. Since the 1900s, Black architects in D.C. have been at the forefront of creating and modernizing iconic homes, businesses and landmarks in the District. Without the work done by Black architects, many of the historic buildings we treasure around the city for having served generations of our Black families and communities would not exist.
In 1902, John A. Lankford moved from Ohio to Washington, D.C., where he became known as the first professional Black architect in the city. Lankford designed and supervised the construction of dozens of buildings in the District, including churches, hotels and residential units. Like many of the Black architects who would come after him, Lankford saw architecture as a way to build community in the city by providing reliable places where like minded people could gather in support of one another. After arriving in D.C., Lankford helped construct the True Reformer Building to serve as headquarters for an African American leaders organization started by civil rights activist William W. Browne. The historic True Reformer Building is still standing today at 1200 U St NW.
In 1905, William S. Pittman grew in popularity as an architect in Washington D.C. after studying at Tuskegee Institute for mechanical and architectural drawing. Pittman started his career as a draftsman while working for Lankford who taught Pittman the importance of building and designing spaces where residents could truly thrive. Following this advice, Pittman became a leader in the Washington D.C. community. After marrying Booker T. Washington’s daughter, Portia, Pittman went on to become a member of the Republic Club, an organizer of the Volunteer Fire Company, member of the Public School Building Committee, and deacon and trustee of the First Baptist Church. By 1912, Pittman was regarded as a world-renowned architect who had designed over $500,000 worth of real-estate. Pittman was also the first Black architect to design a YMCA building in support of the Young Men’s Christian Association.
By the 1920s, Washington D.C. was being heavily regarded as a hub where Black people could come to live and share culture. During this time, Washington D.C. had the largest population of African Americans across all major U.S. cities. The demand for Black architects began to grow, and one architect, Romulus C. Archer, Jr., sought to make a name not only for himself in architecture, but for other aspiring Black architects in D.C. as well. Archer was born in 1891 in Norfolk, Virginia. After enlisting in the U.S. Army in 1918, Archer studied at Columbia University and later at the International Correspondence School in Scranton, Pennsylvania. After finishing his education, Archer entered federal employment with the U.S. Treasury Department’s office of supervising architect as one of the only African Americans in the office. He left this position to start his own architectural firm in 1923. Archer ran a successful architectural firm for over four decades, through which he hired other black draftsmen and aspiring architects to work with him to build churches, commercial buildings and homes in D.C. Archer wanted to prove that a Black owned architecture firm could compete with the white firms at the time, and he proved just that.
Alongside Archer, architect Albert Irvin Casell created waves as an architect in D.C. during the 1920s and 30s. Casell was interested in architecture from a young age. He was introduced to the art of drafting by Ralph Victor Cook while Casell was attending Douglas High School. Casell later attended Cornell University, where he continued to study architecture. After graduating, Casell moved to the District where he began a close relationship with Howard University. Casell worked as a campus planner and architect with Howard University for 18 years. During his time at Howard, Casell worked on designing Founders Library which still stands prominently on Howard’s Yard today. One of Casell’s many goals throughout his illustrious career was to create better housing for Black communities in the nation’s capital. In addition to the work he did with Howard, Casell worked on the Mayfair Gardens, and he also designed several public housing projects along with the Phillis Wheatley Young Women’s Christian Association, Inc. building in Washington, D.C.
Serval Black women throughout D.C. ‘s history have also helped to build the vibrant and complex city we all enjoy today. Barbara Laurie was born in Maine and raised in Massachusetts, but she moved to the District to study architecture and attend Howard University in 1985. After graduating from Howard, she was invited back to serve as an associate professor of architecture at the university. Throughout her career, Laurie was passionate about teaching other Black students about the benefits of pursuing an architecture degree and career. In addition to teaching at Howard, Laurie was president of the D.C. chapter of the American Institute of Architects, and was a board member of the D.C. Preservation League. She also served as the chair of the board of the Washington Architectural Foundation. Laurie was unique in her architectural designs which she intended to be modern and sustainable. Laurie was an environmentalist who believed in designing projects that could operate without causing excessive damage to our ecosystems. Laurie founded and served as managing principal of DP+Partners LLC, an organization which seeks to incorporate energy efficiency and smart building into their projects.
Kathryn Prigmore also worked to create space for the advancement of Black women in architecture. Prigmore began her fascination with architecture in middle school. As a child, she would frequent the City Of Alexandria Public Library in Virginia and read all of the books on architecture that she could find. In the early 1980s, she went to the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, later attending the Catholic University of America. Afterward, she worked for noted African-American architect Robert Traynham Coles, then served as associate dean and associate professor at Howard University from 1989 to 2003. Prigmore became the vice president and senior project manager for HDR until 2014, when she took a position as chief operations officer and risk manager of STUDIOS Architecture. In Becoming An Architect, Prigmore reflected on her hope for the progression of diverse voices in architecture when she said, “The practice of architecture is a rich, white, male profession. Even as the opportunities opened up, we were often relegated to the back rooms of offices … Today, the hearts of many are in the right place, and we are taking our places in the front offices of many firms.”
However, even in light of these trailblazing Black architects, the unfortunate reality is that architecture still remains a white and male dominated field today. According to the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards report, as of August, 2020, of the 116,242 licensed architects in the United States and its territories, just two percent are Black, meaning there were only 2,325 licensed Black architects in the U.S. in 2020. Why is this? Since the beginning, white Americans have had a head start in the field of architecture. Licensure laws were first passed in 1897, but the first Black architect to be licensed, Paul Revere Williams, was not bestowed the title until 1921, almost 25 years later. Racial bias in college admissions and hiring practices continue to alienate Black leaders from the field of architecture today, but these obstacles should not stop Black students from wanting to pursue architecture.
In an inspiring interview, BLAC DC spoke with architect Michael Marshall, FAIA, and CEO of Michael Marshall Design, about his experience of being a Black architect in DC, and about why Marshall thinks this is a profession more Black students should pursue. Marshall has worked as an architect in D.C. for almost forty years. Marshall attended the University of District of Columbia (UDC) for two years before transferring to the Catholic University of America in D.C., where he received his B.S. in architecture. In 1984, Marshall graduated from Yale University with a masters in architecture. He worked for a few years in other architecture firms in D.C. before deciding to open his own firm, Michael Marshall Design, in 1989. Throughout his career, Marshall helped to design and renovate some of D.C.’s most iconic buildings. Marshall helped design the UDC Student Center, the Howard Theatre renovation, and the Chuck Brown memorial in NE, D.C., to name a few. In our interview, Marshall reflected on his earlier architectural career and the changes he is beginning to see take place in architecture now. Marshall was one of few Black students in his architecture programs at Catholic University and Yale. However, since the emergence of Black Lives Matter in 2020, Marshall believes he is beginning to see more diversity in architecture overall. He said, “When I went to Catholic University, I was one of few Black students. When I went to Yale for grad school, there were no other Black students in the entire school of architecture. I have seen it change with Black Lives Matter. There is definitely a swing in the profession to be more diverse and equitable. As a small business, which my company is, we have been asked to team on more projects with majority firms. I think we are at this inflection point with diversity and equity which I think seems pretty real so far.”
Marshall strives to promote the inclusion of diverse voices and backgrounds in architecture, because he believes that you must receive perspectives from all members of a community in order to determine which projects will best serve that community. Marshall explained, “In the next 50 years or so, 75 percent of the world’s population will be in cities, and these cities will be very diverse. You are going to want to have architects and designers and engineers from the same diverse backgrounds to be part of developing the environment for all of us to live in. It is going to be imperative that the people who are there as mediators and developers are developing projects that represent the people they are being built for.”
When asked what advice Marshall would give to other aspiring Black architects, he pointed to the importance of traveling and exploring the unique histories that different cities have to offer. He said, “Travel and see as much of different cities and environments, so that you can understand the history of architecture and the history of those different places. That’s what we do as architects. We contribute to history.”
Washington D.C. needs more Black architects. If you are interested in architecture and design, do not be afraid to share your voice with your community. We can create more and better spaces where our culture is authentically being represented and appreciated. Whether you are an experienced Black architect looking to connect with other Black leaders in your field, or a student who is wanting to pursue architecture, check out the National Organization of Minority Architects to learn more about how you can also champion diverse voices in architecture.