Vineyard summer resident to discuss African American architecture

Vineyard summer resident to discuss African American architecture

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Ellen Weiss, a longtime West Tisbury summer resident, will speak at the Chilmark Library on Wednesday, August 29, at 5:30 pm. The subject of Ms. Weiss’s talk is her master work, “Robert R. Taylor and Tuskegee: An African American Architect Designs for Booker T. Washington.”

The book is no dry academic treatise, but an engaging social history of the people as well as the buildings of the early 20th century in the South. The reader will gain an appreciation for both the challenges and the achievements of African American professionals through this compelling document, written in language easily accessible to the layperson. Ms. Weiss is professor emerita of architectural history at Tulane University.

As Vineyard summer resident Henry Louis Gates Jr. points out in his foreword, Robert R. Taylor was both the first African American graduate of MIT and the nation’s first professionally educated black architect. Mr. Taylor’s alliance with the Tuskegee Institute broadens the dimensions of Ms. Weiss’s book. It is not only a portrait of the man and his accomplishments, but of a groundbreaking institute for the education of blacks, led by an important black intellectual of the time, Booker T. Washington.

As the largest and best-funded black school of its time, Tuskegee embodied Mr. Washington’s plan for racial progress. Other black designers existed at the turn of the century, but Mr. Taylor had the distinction of working for Tuskegee and Mr. Washington. The author portrays Mr. Taylor as a modest, unassuming man who brought his classical architecture training to bear on Mr. Washington’s vision for black equality.

Born into the family of a successful Wilmington, N.C. businessman in 1868, Mr. Taylor was lucky enough to grow up in a relatively enlightened southern city where blacks and whites mixed. His early schooling at the American Missionary Association’s Gregory Normal Institute may have guided him toward furthering his education at MIT. In an interesting coincidence, he spent summers during his college days working in construction on an Oak Bluffs hotel.

In a chapter about Tuskegee before Mr. Taylor arrived, Ms. Weiss points out the correlation between building design and the bricks buildings were made of, with the vision of a school that developed black skills. She does not neglect the conflicts among different members of the black intellectual community. Booker T. Washington had a strong commitment to industrial education, while W.E.B. Du Bois criticized that emphasis and supported classical studies in black education.

When Mr. Taylor arrived at Tuskegee in 1892, he was expected to teach as well as design buildings. He left behind his teaching responsibilities as quickly as possible to focus on architecture, although course design remained an important part of his contribution. Splendid buildings served as “a rock-hard assertion of worth, a fist against the sky,” the author writes.

A retinue of like-minded white philanthropists helped fund Mr. Taylor’s Tuskegee building program, and they left their own imprint on the institution, sometimes modifying Mr. Taylor’s and Mr. Washington’s plans. One of Mr. Taylor’s great accomplishments, Tuskegee’s chapel, was sited and simplified with input from northern donors Olivia Phelps Stokes and her sister Caroline.

Three central chapters on Mr. Taylor’s tenure as Director of Industries at Tuskegee illustrate the scope of issues involved in architectural history. In addition to different types of buildings, the architect had to think about the institute’s infrastructure. The buildings needed fire protection, sewers and sanitation, water and electricity supplies. Alongside the building program came the need to cope with increases in violence and discrimination against African Americans.

Ms. Weiss deftly weaves these many different strands into Mr. Taylor’s and Tuskegee’s story, including the architect’s trip to Liberia. She concludes the generously illustrated book with a catalogue of Mr. Taylor’s Tuskegee buildings. For anyone interested in how architecture and African American history intertwine, “Robert R. Taylor and Tuskegee” is well worth the read.

Author’s Talk with Ellen Weiss, Wednesday, Aug. 29, 5:30 pm, Chilmark Library, For more information, call 508-645-3737 or visit chilmarklibrary.org.

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