Author tells the story of African American architects


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Author Paul Wellington has a master’s degree in architecture, but is not practicing. He wrote a book about the low number of black architects. (Photo: Rick Wood / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

When Paul Wellington wrote his book, he did it to showcase the role African American architects have played in the past and encourage young people to pick up that mantle for the future.

He and architect Nicholas Robinson emphasized that message at a discussion at the Milwaukee Public Library’s Tippecanoe Branch Wednesday night.

Wellington read several entries from his new book, “Black Built: History and Architecture in the Black Community,” which features African American architects’ from the 1800s to the present including:

  • Tuskegee, Alabama’s, Tuskegee University Chapel, designed by Robert Taylor in 1898.
  • Chicago’s Johnson Publishing Building, designed by John Warren Moutoussamy in 1972.
  • Milwaukee’s Sojourner Family Peace Center, designed by Isaac Menyoli of M&E Architects in 2015.

It also featured the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church of Birmingham, Alabama, which was built by Wallace Rayfield in 1911. It was also the site of the church bombing that killed four African American girls at the height of the Civil Rights movement.

Wellington said the book is meant to show students of color that they could have a future in architecture.

“I want to encourage other African American youth to take this career path and see what they can accomplish,” he said.

Robinson took that career path.

At 31, he is the co-founder of DREAM Builders and one of only eight licensed African American architects in Wisconsin.

As a youngster, he said he was partially drawn to architecture because he loved the idea of getting paid to draw, a passion of his since third grade.

He said he was also drawn to the profession because of how it impacts people’s physical — and by extension, mental — environments.

So when he had the chance to learn the formal skill in college, he took it.

“Architecture was more about solving problems and allowing the environment to show you what you are supposed to do,” he said.

In a city like Milwaukee, architecture can be a challenge because of resource shortages and banks’ reluctance to invest in the central city. However, he also noted that working in the central city helps him connect to other organizations that are invested in the central city.

Robinson and Wellington both spent six years in school, earning their master’s degrees.

During his undergraduate career, Wellington said he didn’t study any African American architects and only learned about them during personal research; during his graduate program, he began thinking about writing a book that would highlight African American architectural contributions around the country.

After 16 months of writing and researching at night — and taking one-third of the photos himself — that thought became a reality. 

Wellington chose to study architecture because, he said, representation matters.

“In the African American community, I feel like if we grow up there, we can help design there. We have an understanding of what is best for those communities,” he explained.

Wellington also co-founded MKE Black, an organization that celebrates and promotes African American business and culture.

Marion Clendenen-Acosta, the only licensed African American female architect in the state and the chair of the Historical Preservation Committee, said she is glad to see architects of color striving for more diversity in the profession.

“It’s great to see the energy,” she said.

Wellington said this project is just the beginning. He wants to expand MKE Black to an electronic app and explore the role of African American women in architecture.

The only way to solve the field’s current lack of diversity, he said, is showing what’s possible.

“Black Built” will be available at Boswell Book Company and on Amazon.

Contact Talis Shelbourne at (414) 223-5261 or Follow her on Twitter at @talisseer and Facebook at @talisseer. 

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