February 9, 2006
Posted online February 24, 2006
Student project spotlights African-American
architects from U. of I.
By Melissa Mitchell,
|Walter T. Bailey was the first
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 1910.
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — 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
"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," he said.
"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.
Watkins documented 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
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.
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,
Another pathbreaking 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."
Architecture professor Kathy 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
"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
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
"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 us."