In honor of Black History Month, the Philadelphia Inquirer is publishing a series ‘that explores the importance of a comprehensive black history education. Through personal essays, we tap into the power of that knowledge.’ Read the whole series here. Below, North Carolina Managing and Design Director Phil Freelon shares his account of growing up as an African American architect and discovering a history not often taught in the halls of architectural academia. Share your own story on social media using #BlackHistoryUntold.
I was an undergrad in 1974 working as a summer intern for an architect in Durham, N.C., the home of Duke University, when I first learned about the life and contributions of the Philadelphia-born African American architect Julian Abele
. My architectural studies consistently focused on Western European history and traditions, seldom if ever touching on the architecture of Asia, Africa, the Ottoman Empire, Islamic cultures, and African American contributions to U.S. architecture.
A young Phil Freelon during his undergrad days.
As I researched Abele’s life, I was amazed to learn of the scope and impact of his work. He designed more than 400 buildings, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Free Library of Philadelphia, and the core structures that compose Duke University’s campus.
Julian Abele. Image courtesy of the 1924-1932 Duke University Archves.
Yet Abele was not welcome in the segregated South, which made it nearly impossible for him to observe the construction of his buildings at Duke.
Abele was able to advance and excel in a profession that — even today — is characterized by its lack of diversity and inclusion (less than 2 percent of licensed architects in the United States are African American). Under the circumstances and in that era, the 1920s through the ’60s, what Abele accomplished is truly remarkable. He has inspired me. The challenges I faced during my career pale in comparison. Learning about Abele’s incredible career gave me confidence that I, too, could achieve success as an architect.
Following in Abele’s footsteps 50 years later, I am an African American architect — born and raised in Philadelphia — working on projects at Duke University and across the country. With an eye on the future and expanding the profession to include a broader demographic, I have tried to be a visible role model and to let young people know about career opportunities in architecture — and the Julian Abele story is a wonderful example.
Phil Freelon inside his design for the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, Georgia.