America's Forgotten Architects
Saturday, July 10, 2004; Page A17
Lynne Duke is to be commended for correctly positing that J. Max Bond Jr. is the most esteemed black architect in the United States [Style, July 1]. Bond's accomplishments, enumerated in her article, speak eloquently to that view about the man. Nonetheless, I can now better appreciate that old canard about the road to hell being paved with good intentions.
Black professional involvement in architecture in the 20th century did not begin with Julian Abele, who was never a practitioner but was merely an employee of a prominent white Philadelphia firm that only hesitantly showed Abele's face to important clients. Compounding erroneous implications, Abele did not consider himself black. Nor was the great Paul Williams a "fountainhead" of black achievement in architecture. Is it really so difficult to get it right and place the genesis of modern black professional architecture down in Alabama on the 1890s Tuskegee Institute campus, where it rightly belongs?
Meanwhile, as an architect who has lived in Washington since my days as a freshman at Howard University in 1962, I can count on one hand the number of Post articles that match Duke's piece in linking African Americans with the subject of architecture (full disclosure: I was the subject of one such article in 1991). Rather, such pieces appear to be rare and random. And inevitably, this reinforces the impression in the public mind that the use of the words "architecture and African American" together is an oxymoron.
Despite the efforts of your paper's erudite critic Benjamin Forgey, that paradigm will continue. Without your paper's willingness to integrate its fine staff of African American columnists with an architecture professional who is as knowledgeable about the history and cultural dynamics of architecture as a Forgey (and the occasional other) -- but who also intimately knows the "black side" of architecture -- the status quo will continue.
-- Melvin L. Mitchell
The writer is first vice president and president elect of the National Organization of Minority Architects.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company