In celebration of Black History Month, we’re exploring the legacy of prominent Black voices in architecture and discussing racism, social movements and civil rights as they manifest in the built environment at the intersection of housing, transit, density, urban development, decay and discrimination.
We sat down with a few Black employees around the globe to talk about the importance of honoring Black history – especially in our profession – and how they honor the legacy of their people at home.
Tell me about a Black historical figure who is important to you – famous or personal.
Yvonne Brunson, Benefits Manager and Associate Principal in Baltimore: I have a lot of respect for the many people who came to prominence prior to and during the Civil Rights era—those with significant accomplishments despite demoralizing environments. Mary Jackson was a mathematician and NASA’s first Black female engineer (aerospace) in 1954. She was one of the NASA “human computers” whose work was critical to the space program’s success. Her work also helped improve airplane design. She had to petition the Hampton, VA courts to attend the segregated school that offered the engineering classes she needed. Later in her career, when she could not advance to NASA management, she took a demotion to work in their Equal Opportunity department to advocate for hiring and advancement for other minority and women workers. She was awarded a Congressional Gold Medal posthumously, and, in 2021, the NASA headquarters building in D.C. was named for her. Her life was one of those profiled in the book and movie: Hidden Figures.
Ephraim Elongo, Architectural Designer in Seattle: A Black Historical figure who is important to me is Paul Revere Williams. He is a Black architect that has influenced and inspired me to be in architecture: a field that does not have a lot of Black people. Even in schools, the architects we learn about don’t look like me – so, I had to research and find someone whose story I can relate to.
Derek Opara, BIM Coordinator in London: Historically, Nelson Mandela is one of the most significant Black and Universal figures in modern human history. He bridged the gap between Whites and Blacks in South Africa without compromising his dignity and bowing his head despite any personal suffering he endured. He is a human who survived everything for his principles.
It’s incredible to see how he evolved from the Titanic, 6-foot-tall political rebel to the diminutive, elderly Statesman man while still retaining all of his power in his actions and voice. One can change; you can always learn, become better and teach and affect others around you.
In terms of personal figures: my parents. They are the immigrant story. They’re Nigerian, and they had very little: four kids, one autistic. They worked hard and always instilled in us to work as hard as they did. They told us we could be the best in whatever we wanted to do. We were lucky to have them.
LaSalle Tippens, Senior Designer in Dallas: Black influences have always held high regard in my life. Stories I read as a kid about black inventors, scientists, leaders and athletes provided me with a certain curiosity and opened me up to a world of imagination. The inventor Garrett Morgan sticks out to me—first because he was the winning answer (made by myself) for first place in a Black History Bowl in my teenage years, and second because his inventions changed our world in a simple but major way: the traffic light and smoke hood/gas mask. Inventiveness is a mindset. I would have to attribute much of my love for architecture to my grandfather, whom I never actually met, and my Dad. My grandfather was a farmer, a highly sought out individual in our community regarding business, accounting and surveying land. Living in a small town by population, my grandfather spent many days with a notebook and bag of rocks in hand, walking off the land boundaries of many of his peers and keeping a log farm animal and the harvest. He was a creative mind with very few resources. A jack of all trades, my Dad left no stone unturned as far as labor goes. He was always willing to try anything if it meant he would come out the other side a smarter, more skillful man. A teacher to whoever had the ear to listen.
How does your work reflect your experience? How did you get to where you are now?
Y.B.: I was a first-generation college student. My parents could not attend college, but they made sure that my sister and I attended and graduated from universities. My degree helped me start my career at Blue Cross, where I navigated from insurance to Human Resources: Benefits. I like the analytical aspects of the work and helping educate employees about choices that make a difference in their lives, like healthcare and retirement. I have been in the same role since the start of my career at CRTKL, but it has evolved significantly with technology, legislation and industry trends.
E.E.: I didn’t have the luxury to have a mentor or a family member in the field. It has been trial and error since my first year of college. I have learned to rely on myself for a while. My work reflects that, but joining the architectural field allowed me to grow from that mindset to realize that there is always a team to help.
For me to get to where I am today, I had to work twice as hard. Twice as hard to get an internship post-graduation twice as hard to get my foot in the door because I don’t fit the bill of a typical designer. I had to teach myself multiple software to match up equally with my counterparts to look more experienced because the playing field isn’t level without that.
D.O.: Work has been a mixed bag. Honestly, the world of architecture is not ethnically diverse based on my experience in the U.K. Despite my low economic upbringing, I found my way into the profession by getting into a good school. Middle-class friends of mine opened me up to being an architect. I didn’t know much about it, but it seemed like a career that married up my set of talents.
Progression was challenging, not necessarily through ‘proactive’ racism as far as I saw, but more through suffering from heavy nepotism in the industry. You also learn that someone that looks more similar to the employers will often get the job, even if you are on an equal footing with a peer. It’s human nature. So, I felt I had to better or offer something extra when I was younger because the industry was not diverse.
I got a summer placement at a well-known architecture practice through a fantastic organization called the Stephen Lawrence Foundation. The practice saw my value, and I stayed with them and developed as an Architect. The Stephen Lawrence Foundation began after a young black man (Stephen) was brutally murdered in a racially motivated attack while waiting for a bus in 1993. The organization set up opportunities with thousands of kids from BAME (Black, Asian, and minority ethnic) backgrounds—with great business organizations in the creative fields—and now other areas such as law and finance. Doreen Lawrence and Stephen Lawrence are other significant black figures in my life.
Developing my professional career required constant self-assessment of worth and value to your organization, mainly because those in front of you might not reflect your background. There is the degree of color blindness I felt I had to adapt because there is the dream of diversity, and then there is the reality. It was my way to help develop my confidence.
For me, the smallest intervention with the biggest impact on a person that conventionally has fewer opportunities is exposure as early as possible to all the possibilities. By exposing BAME kids and kids from lower socio-economic backgrounds opportunities and professional goals at, say ten years old, or even younger, this could be you someday; these are the options you have—can have an immense impact. This is especially true if they are shown this by someone that looks like them, for example, a BAME female student being shown the possibilities by a professional BAME female.
Over the years, I’ve mentored young kids like me to expose them to these possibilities. Often, the analogy is middle-class kids have a head start in the race, but often BAME kids can’t even see the finish line to begin with, which is the biggest problem. Luckily, throughout my career, my parents and mentors of all ethnicities pointed out the finish line I’m still striving to cross here at CRTKL.
L.T.: In grade school, I was an active member in the NAACP and Act-So youth organizations. We traveled around to different cities competing with other divisions and had art shows, science fairs and lectures from leaders in their respective industries. These were very fruitful experiences in a journey to become our best selves. I’ve always wanted to make the world a better place in the most cliché way. My reason for becoming an architect was just that. On one of my first projects, my client — who grew up in the same community as me — told me I was his hero. Coming from a guy that was in the Army Corps of Engineers and did a tour in Afghanistan, this meant so much to me as I had never been called a hero. There is so much influence that comes with architecture. It’s an industry that shares knowledge, learns and interacts with most other industries of the world and manifests solutions. I deeply believe architecture can have a hand in creating social change, providing opportunities and generating solutions for all types of people, including Black people. More times than not, I’ve noticed that certain stereotypical beliefs create a valley between how we as designers approach design and communities that despise change. Closing that gap is one of the biggest social engineering duties that architecture can lead the way.
How do you celebrate your history?
Y.B.: Black History is a part of my family’s life year-round. My husband and I educate our son and daughter about our family’s path in the U.S. from enslavement to The Great Migration to where we are today. Technology makes it very easy to educate ourselves about our personal and collective Black history (American history). It’s as simple as following social media accounts of organizations/individuals devoted to the past and equal justice and using sites like Ancestry.com. We have learned a lot about our family members’ lives over several decades. Black History Month gives us even more opportunities to view special programming, classic movies and events. We also plan to return to the amazing National Museum of African American History & Culture in D.C. which, interestingly, was designed by African-American architect, Phil Freelon who also partnered with RTKL’s Gary Bowden on the design of Maryland’s African American history & culture museum.
E.E.: I celebrate Black History by recognizing the people before me that made it possible for me to be where I am today. And, by supporting the ones here now — so that we can set up a better place for the future generation. Black History, to me, is a time of reflection and gaining knowledge. A reminder that we have faced adversity day in and out, and we still stay resilient, focused on the present, and hopeful for something better in the future.
D.O.: I use Black History Month as an opportunity to become more proactive in learning about Black history. Over the last three years, my habit has been to read a black historical book in that month. This year it’s Fire Is Upon Us by James Baldwin and William F. Buckley. Sometimes, I get through the book or not, depending on how good of a read it is, but I usually learn something from it regardless. That reading is usually the trigger to consume more content about race, such as podcasts like NPR’s Codeswitch, because it’s at the forefront of my mind.
L.T.: I don’t know so much if it is “celebrate”, it’s more “appreciate” for me. The present-day is the history of our future. I try to make sure to learn something new about the “firsts” and people who have the will to make things better moving forward. Blackness is comprised of several cultures that are overshadowed by one race oftentimes. Knowing that opens my mind to experience things with more than just my eyes but also taste, smell, hearing and touch.