Building A Better Future

The Work and Legacy of Five African American Architects

Throughout the twentieth century, African Americans pushed not just for inclusion, but also more equal representation. The field of architecture was no exception to these ground-breaking efforts.

Pioneering African American architects, such as Harold L. Williams, Norma Merrick Sklarek, and John S. Chase, expanded the profession and paved the way for a new generation, including Philip G. Freelon and Michael Marshall.

Harold L. Williams

Harold L. Williams (1924-2015) was a celebrated architect whose work focused on public service. Williams worked in the field for fifty years, primarily in Southern California. His career helped physically shape the Southern California landscape and his work as a mentor and advocate continues to impact architects and his community today.

Williams was born in Flemingsburg, Kentucky, and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio. As an artistic child, he gained an interest in architecture at a young age. He was inspired by renowned architect Paul R. Williams (no relation), who also worked in California. Paul R. Williams was the first African American member of the American Institute of Architects (AIA). Paul R. Williams and Harold L. Williams met in 1944, and maintained a friendship throughout the remainder of their lives. During a tribute dinner for Paul’s retirement in 1973, Harold presented a speech in honor of his predecessor.

Careful thought, good design and fresh ideas, multiplied by the strength of numbers and reinforced by the minority experience in this country can and will contribute to the solution of the problems confronting our environment. Our concern is that this contribution not be restricted by past and current barriers to equal participation in the mainstream of National life.

Excerpt from the Preamble to the Constitution and Bylaws of the Southern California Association of Minority Architects and Planners, 1972

Williams was committed to promoting community, both around Southern California and among African American architects. His firm, Harold Williams Associates, focused on buildings that served the public good, such as schools, civic centers, and city halls. He served on the Committee for Simon Rodia’s Towers (also known as the Watts Towers), which still stand today as a remarkable landmark of the Watts neighborhood. He also designed a new Watts Tower Art Center in 1967, to serve the community. Williams’ acclaimed design for the Compton City Hall and Civic Center, with a memorial to Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. marked a new era, moving the city, and its changing demographics, into the future.

Williams spearheaded a professional effort to increase diversity in the field by founding the Southern California Association of Minority Architects and Planners (MAP) in 1969. MAP was a forerunner to the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA), which Williams helped found in 1971. NOMA’s mission is to “champion diversity within the design professions by promoting the excellence, community engagement, and professional development of its members.” Twelve architects worked together to create NOMA. Just as he was influenced and inspired by Paul R. Williams, Harold L. Williams sought to increase the mentorship opportunities and professional relationships among black architects at a time when so few were in the field.

A square button with the words "African Spirit, Design Diaspora, Architecture, NYCOBA/NOMA" around the edge with an image of the continent of Africa in the middle.

Pin-back button from NYCOBA / NOMA, after 1992. A2018.56.1.1.1

Gift of Betty Smith Williams in memory of Harold Louis Williams

Norma Merrick Sklarek​

In addition to Harold L. Williams and Paul R. Williams, Norma Merrick Sklarek (1926-2012) also broke down barriers in the field. Her story illustrates the difficulty not just for African Americans, but also for women to gain a professional foothold.

Sklarek was born in Harlem, New York. She was encouraged by her father, who taught her carpentry, to pursue architecture. When Sklarek graduated from Columbia University’s School of Architecture, she was one of only two women in her class and one of the first African American women in the country to receive a license to practice architecture. Sklarek worked at numerous firms throughout her career including Skidmore, Owings & Merrill; Gruen and Associates; Welton Beckett Associates; and the Jon Jerde Partnership. At Gruen and Associates, she became the firm’s first black female director. In 1985, she co-founded Siegel, Sklarek, and Diamond with Margot Siegel and Katherine Diamond. At the time, it was one of the largest women-owned architecture firms in the United States.

“Norma Sklarek: A Licensed Architect” from an oral history interview with Norma Sklarek from The National Visionary Leadership Project

The National Visionary Leadership Project (NVLP)
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Like Paul R. Williams and Harold L. Williams, Sklarek also worked on projects in Southern California, including the Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles and Terminal One at the Los Angeles International Airport. Sklarek was well known for her project management skills, particularly for large-scale jobs. She served as a principal of project management at the Jerde Partnership, where she worked on the Mall of America in Minneapolis.

Sklarek was the first African American woman elected to the Fellows of the American Institute of Architects (FAIA), an honor awarded to only three percent of AIA members. Harold L. Williams and John S. Chase were also part of this exclusive group due to their contributions to the field. She received the AIA’s Whitney M. Young Jr. Award for working to address social issues by promoting racial and gender diversity in the field. Through her social engagement, leadership and management skills, and design expertise, Sklarek helped expand and inspire the field of architecture.

A printed award to Norma Sklarek.

Whitney M. Young Jr. award received by Norma Merrick Sklarek, 2008. TA2018.23.7.1.11.1

Gift of David Merrick Fairweather and Yvonne Goff

John S. Chase

Alongside Harold L. Williams and ten others, architect John S. Chase (1925-2012) helped to co-found NOMA. Chase used his career to foster a professional community. Chase was born in Annapolis, Maryland, but spent most of his career in Houston, Texas. In 1950, when Chase began attending graduate school at the University of Texas in Austin, he was the first African American student to do so. Two days before his enrollment, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled to integrate the school. After graduating from the University of Texas in 1952, Chase became the first African American architect licensed in Texas.

A compass, pencil, stencil.

Drafting tools used by John S. Chase, mid-late 20th century.

Gift of Drucie Rucker Chase

Chase’s work in Texas expanded the reach of African American architects into new areas of the country, adding to growing centers in California and on the East Coast. He started his own firm, John S. Chase, FAIA Architects, which eventually expanded to four locations in Houston, Austin, Dallas, and Washington, D.C. In Houston and Austin, Chase designed churches including the Olivet Baptist Church and the David Chapel Missionary Baptist Church. Chase had a particular interest in church architecture and wrote his Master’s thesis on "Progressive Architecture for the Negro Baptist Church."

Much of Chase’s work involved building projects on the Texas Southern University campus, including the Thurgood Marshall School of Law, the Student Center, and the School of Education. Like other pioneering architects, Chase recognized the integral connection between education, professionalism, mentorship, and promoting diversity in the architectural field. Chase’s work laid the foundation for future architects. In 1980, Chase became the first African American appointed to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts. Another renowned architect, Philip G. Freelon, received this honor as well. 

Philip G. Freelon

Philip G. Freelon has used his professional career to create architecture that serves African American communities. Freelon, a Philadelphia native, graduated from North Carolina State University’s College of Design with a Bachelor of Environmental Design and received a Master of Architecture degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Freelon was inspired by previous generations of African American architects, including Julian Abele who designed iconic buildings in Philadelphia and much of Duke’s original campus in North Carolina. In 1990, Freelon founded his own firm, The Freelon Group, in Durham, North Carolina. The Freelon Group was one of the partners responsible for the planning, design, and construction of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Freelon’s work on public buildings in Washington, D.C. also include the Anacostia Neighborhood Library and the Tenley-Friendship Neighborhood Library.

Freelon has a long history of designing African American cultural institutions, including the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco, the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture in Baltimore, the Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, and the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture in Charlotte. Freelon is keen to create architecture that is accessible and inspiring to all people. These designs highlight the connection between a building’s architecture, its purpose, and its community.

“NC State: Phil Freelon, Community Builder”

Freelon highlights the ways that architecture can be inclusive and accessible to their communities.

North Carolina State University
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I like to do projects that enhance the lives of everyday people, like campus buildings, libraries, museums and government buildings. That’s why I love working in the public sector. I derive a tremendous amount of pride in developing places that everyday people can experience. I like to create beauty in everyday lives.

Philip Freelon, 2015. Interview with NBC News

Earlier architects, such as Harold L. Williams, Norma Merrick Sklarek, and Paul R. Williams, laid the foundation for future generation of African American architects. The challenges they tackled and the community ties they developed helped foster the growing number of young black architects to enter and expand the field. While their efforts have increased the opportunities for black architects, they are still severely underrepresented. Like the mentorship and professional network efforts of Harold L. Williams and Paul R. Williams, Freelon also works to grow the future of the profession. Today, just two percent of architects are African American. Working as an adjunct professor and guest lecturer, Freelon has sought to increase diversity in the field. In 2016, Freelon and architecture firm Perkins+Will established the Phil Freelon Fellowship Fund at the Harvard Graduate School of Design to expand opportunities for underrepresented students. By designing buildings that serve the public, Freelon’s work opens architecture to a wider audience.

Michael Marshall

Architect Michael Marshall, like Philip G. Freelon, has also contributed to the expanding cultural landscape in Washington, D.C. Marshall, a D.C. native, works as the Design Director and Principal of Michael Marshall Design. Marshall received architecture degrees from the Washington Technical Institute, The Catholic University of America, and Yale University.

Marshall’s career is built on that of earlier professionals and shows the interconnectedness of the small, but growing, number of African American architects. John S. Chase designed some of the architecture at the Washington Technical Institute, which eventually merged into the University of the District of Columbia (UDC). Chase worked on the buildings for Allied Health and Environmental Science, Physical Education, and Ancillary Service. At this same school, Marshall completed the two-year program for Architectural Engineering Technology in 1977. Connecting both their educations and professional careers, Chase and Marshall worked on projects for their respective alma maters: Chase for the University of Texas in Houston and Marshall at UDC in Washington, D.C.

Architectural illustration of the new Student Center at UDC by Michael Marshall

Architectural illustration of the new Student Center at UDC by Michael Marshall, 2011. TA2018.24.2.1

Gift from Architectural Design Archives, Michael Marshall, Architect

Marshall’s career has focused on improving architecture throughout the Nation’s Capital. His work supports both his hometown and African American institutions. Marshall’s projects include the Chuck Brown Memorial and the Horace Mann Elementary School, as well as the design for the interior for the renovated Howard Theater, which reopened in 2012. The variety of projects Marshall has worked on enhance the landscape and diversity of the D.C. community and architectural scene.

We need to come back and give back. The university needs us. We need to give back with our talents, our services, our knowledge. We need to be here.

Michael Marshall Discussing the UDC Student Center Project

The careers of these five architects demonstrate the strides that have been made in the field of architecture. Through the creation of NOMA, professional and community activism, mentorship efforts, and renowned design, African American architects have helped shape the industry and inspired one another. The perseverance, ingenuity, and success of Harold L. Williams, Norma Merrick Sklarek, John S. Chase, Philip G. Freelon, and Michael Marshall should be lauded. However, given the adversity they have faced and the low number of African American architects today, there is much room for improvement. These distinguished architects have laid the groundwork for future architects to build upon.

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Written by Tess Christiansen, Cataloger, and Lindsey Bestebreurtje​, Curatorial Assistant

Published on September 19, 2018