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Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Freelon Adjaye Bond / SmithGroup

Blog | Feb 15, 2022

Six Black Icons That Impacted the AEC Industry

February is Black History Month, an annual celebration of African American culture, and a time to recognize the central role of Black people in the United States. African Americans have had a profound impact on the construction industry through great inventions and work on many of the country’s most notable projects. Here are some individuals who paved the way as Black builders, architects, and inventors.

Robert Robinson Taylor (1868-1942) was the first academically trained and credentialed Black architect in America. He worked as a carpenter and foreman prior to enrolling at MIT. Taylor was recruited by Booker T. Washington to develop the architecture and construction trade programs at the Tuskegee Institute of Alabama. He also designed and built several of the structures that stand on their campus today.

Moses McKissack III (1879-1952) was the grandson of an African-born enslaved person, and alongside his brother, he founded one of the earliest Black architectural firms in the Unites States – McKissack & McKissack. Still in operation today, the firm has worked on thousands of historic structures such as the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial and National Museum of African American History and Culture (above) – both located in Washington, D.C. 

Alexander Miles (1838-1918) invented the automatically closing and opening elevator doors – a standard feature still used in most buildings today that makes use of an elevator much safer. Alexander was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2007 for his work.

Paul Revere Williams (1894-1980) was the first African American member of the American Institute of Architects (AIA). Known as the “Architect to the Stars,” celebrities such as Frank Sinatra commissioned him to design their homes. Williams designed the space-aged looking Theme Building at the Los Angeles International Airport.

Alice H. Parker (1885-1920) filed the first patent for a gas-powered furnace system with an innovative duct structure to carry heat to multiple rooms. The idea of a single-source system to heat multiple rooms paved the way for modern heating in buildings and was a vast improvement on the old system of firing up coal and wood to fuel furnaces. 

J. Max Bond, Jr.’s (1935-2009) architectural firm Bond Ryder & Associates designed many Black heritage sites including the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for the Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta, where the civil rights activist and his wife were laid to rest. He received the Whitney M. Young Jr. Award in 1987, the highest honors bestowed by the (AIA). Bond is perhaps best known for actualizing the 9/11 Memorial Museum in New York City.

We are forever grateful to these pioneering Black inventors and architects who have shaped the way we work and the built environment for generations to come.

Top photo: National Museum of African-American History & Culture, Credit – Alan Karchmer for Smithsonian. Middle: Elevator lobby at Hirsch Bedner Associates in Atlanta, Georgia. Bottom: Theme Building – Photo Courtesy Los Angeles World Airports

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