In September 1888, a young man hoping to become a builder traveled from North Carolina to Massachusetts to take MIT’s entrance exam. He did more than pass the test. Robert Taylor, MIT’s first African-American graduate, became the nation’s first prominent black architect, an American trailblazer who designed elegant buildings and trained generations of architects.
As the main architect at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, Taylor designed many of the campus’s most prominent structures as he helped build schools and houses in a half-dozen other states. And as its director of “industrial training” from the 1890s into the 1930s, Taylor helped Booker T. Washington turn Tuskegee into a leading university for African-Americans. Some scholars believe Taylor influenced Washington’s educational philosophy, pushing it toward a balance of abstract and practical training.
And while Taylor is not a household name today, his achievements were well known in his own time. After his death in 1942, obituaries described him as a man of “fine character” and “strict integrity” who stood “as a type of American which the nation, without regard to race or creed, can point to with pride and satisfaction.”
Taylor was born in 1868 and grew up in Wilmington, North Carolina, where his father—unusually for an African-American in that time and place—ran a building business. The family, determined to give Taylor a strong technical education in building, set its sights on MIT, home to the first U.S. architecture school. He graduated in 1892 after completing his thesis project, “Design for a Soldiers’ Home.” Word of his success reached Washington, who had founded Tuskegee in 1881. Taylor joined the institute and remained there almost exclusively until retirement.
When Taylor spoke at MIT’s 50th-anniversary celebration in 1911, he noted that “some of the methods and plans of [MIT] have been transplanted to the Tuskegee Institute and have flourished and grown there.” This included “the love of doing things correctly, of putting logical ways of thinking into the humblest task, of studying surrounding conditions, of soil, of climate, of material and of using them to the best advantage in contributing to build up the immediate community in which the persons live” so that America as a whole could flourish.
Long after Taylor’s death, his family continued his pathbreaking legacy. His son, Robert, became the first African-American head of the Chicago Housing Authority; his great-granddaughter, Valerie Jarrett, is a senior advisor to President Barack Obama.
Tuskegee’s school of architecture is named for Taylor, and an MIT professorship is named in his honor. Currently, violist Marcus Thompson is the Robert R. Taylor Professor of Music. “As a fellow African-American I feel pride in using his name under my signature,” he says.