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Reprinted in its entirely from the Washington Business Journal, December 11, 2020
Editor’s note: We have started a new feature called “My Story,” in which business executives share their personal and professional backgrounds and journeys that have made them who they are, in their own candid words, from the challenges of confronting stereotypes to the glory in overcoming them. Amid calls for racial justice, we can only make real change with greater awareness and understanding — and the ability to learn from each other’s experiences.
In the wake of the riots of April 1968, my mother and our neighbor, Gracie Briggs, wanted to see the destruction that leveled parts of our city in the aftermath of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. I, along with my brother and sisters and Mrs. Briggs’ son, Conrad, was to come along for that drive, ensconced in the back seat of her car. As we passed through streets of the still-smoldering ruins of what used to be vibrant commercial neighborhoods, we witnessed soldiers and military vehicles posted at intersections along the H Street, U Street and 14th Street corridors. The surreal view from the back seat of the car, framed by the windows, gave the impression of a scene from a war movie, with the carnage heaped upon familiar places where we used to shop and visit. Seeing the results of the riots on the nightly news did not prepare us for witnessing the destruction of the fabric of our city in person.
What I saw then would never leave me.
Later that year, I spent time with a childhood friend, Santo Chase, who exposed me to the profession of architecture by showing me a set of “blueprints” that his father, a carpenter, followed to build a house. He said, “The architect makes these drawings so that my dad knows what to build.” As a child, I had a pretty good facility at drawing and I enjoyed it. That day, I set my mind to becoming an architect. I was 11 years old.
The confluence of those events in 1968 have become the métier of my life as an architect, participating in the rebuilding and renaissance of our city.
In junior and senior high school, I took drafting classes, but graduated from high school without applying to college. Looking back on living in Prince George’s County during the age of forced busing in the ’70s, I now realize there were two tracks of student guidance counseling. Busing black kids to schools in white neighborhoods did not result in the equal treatment of every student as promised.
I am the son of hard-working parents who never had the opportunity to attend college, growing up as sharecroppers in southern Virginia during the times of segregation. My father and mother, along with relatives, moved north to D.C. as other African Americans did during the great migration. My father found work in gas stations and, later, as a D.C. Public Schools bus driver, and my mother became a housekeeper by day and janitor at night. Due to their inexperience with higher education, my aspirations to enter a profession that required college were on my own accord and a mystery to me.
In the summer of 1975, I was working at a car dealership in Largo, cleaning used cars. I heard a radio commercial about a two-year technical college offering coursework in architectural engineering technology: the Washington Technical Institute. Today, that school is the University of the District of Columbia (UDC), which is now a combination of three historically Black colleges and universities. The beauty of attending UDC at that time was that all the professors were practicing, licensed architects and engineers. During the ’70s and ’80s, manual or hand drawing was state-of-the-art for architects; it was the pre-digital revolution. The training afforded us by our professors at the beginning of our academic career was invaluable as entrée to getting a first job or internship.
The support of a diverse group of professors also gave a diverse student body a picture of how we might someday fit into our profession. We had African American and caucasian professors, and even a Native American professor, Richard Hawkshaw, who taught architectural history as if he had lived in every period from ancient Egypt to modern times. Another standout professor and mentor from my time at UDC is Clarence Pearson, who just recently retired. He was not only one of my professors, but also one of my first employers.
After two years at UDC, I was accepted as a transfer student to the Catholic University of America (CUA) School of Architecture to pursue my bachelor of science degree. I attended CUA on scholarships; my education there gave me the confidence and fortitude to apply to the Yale School of Architecture for my graduate studies.
At Yale, I was the only African American in the School of Architecture’s master’s program. This had no bearing on my feelings of acceptance. I felt totally welcomed by my professors and fellow students. I had the great fortune to have as professors in our studio classes two of the most prominent architects of our time, Frank Gehry and British architect James Stirling.
Today, I am mentoring students to follow my path to Yale. Serving on the Dean’s Council, I hope to be a conduit for more young minorities applying to graduate school to have the same academic opportunities that I had.
In 1989, I founded my own firm here in the District. Over the past 30 years, my practice has had the opportunity to be part of major developments that have been catalysts for the redevelopment of areas that were affected by the neglect of mending the fabric of our city after the ’68 riots.
My work in education — on the renovations and additions to D.C. Public School properties and work for Friendship Public Charter Schools — is of great importance to me personally as an architect. Additionally, it was my honor and privilege to be part of the design team for the University of the District of Columbia Student Center. That, for me, was truly coming full circle.
Education is an important equalizer. It starts from Pre-K through high school and beyond. It pays off, not only for the individuals receiving it, but also benefits our communities.
It is the key to our evolution as a society and our civic duty to each generation. In my professional position, it is my privilege to be part of the solution.