Paul R. Williams: A Black Architectural Pioneer

The movement toward building a racially equitable society that values the power of diversity shouldn’t ever be limited to just one month of the year, and most certainly not the shortest one.

Every February, we celebrate Black History Month to highlight the endless contributions Black Americans have made to American society – and the adversity still faced at the hand of it. This month I will take the opportunity to amplify a few black voices and innovators that have inspired me and countless others to put our best foot forward within our communities, passions, and ourselves.

As someone whose life has been encompassed by design and building, it’s fitting to commemorate Paul R. Williams – the first black architect to become a member of the American Institute of Architects in 1923. Born in downtown Los Angeles in 1894, Williams was orphaned at a young age when his parents died of tuberculosis. Consequently, Williams was raised by a family friend who instilled within him the belief that he could be anything he wanted, leading him to pursue his passion for designing homes for families. This dream started Williams on a long, obstacle-ridden journey of resilience and transformation that led to his 1957 induction into the American Institute of Architects (AIA) as its first black fellow.

Williams began designing homes and commercial buildings, mainly throughout southern California, throughout the early 1920s. His granddaughter, Karen E. Hudson, said that her grandfather made many adjustments to the reality of racism in his day, including teaching himself to draw upside down so white clients wouldn't feel uncomfortable sitting next to him. Williams also toured construction sites with hands clasped behind his back in case people did not want to shake a black man's hand, so he gave them the option of extending their hand first.

In a 1937 essay for American Magazine called "I Am a Negro," Williams shared some of his own philosophy, explaining that "Virtually everything pertaining to my professional life during those early years was influenced by my need to offset race prejudice, by my effort to force white people to consider me as an individual rather than a member of a race," he wrote. "I encountered irreconcilables who simply refused to give me a hearing, but on the whole, I have been treated with amazing fairness."

When Williams died in 1980, he had created around 2,500 buildings in LA and worldwide. He became widely known for designing the homes of big-time celebrities, including Frank Sinatra, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Lon Chaney, Barbara Stanwyck, and Charles Correll. His legacy lives on not only within the grand spaces he developed with a typical “cozy” Williams signature but in the trailblazing courage he took on to pave a path of excellence and triumph for every Black architect after him.

Understanding and celebrating Black history is critical to the unification and healing that our country so deeply needs. We must commit ourselves to advance representation and inclusion while honoring the historic struggle of so many people of color who fought to secure freedom and equality.

To find more events and information surrounding Black History Month, click here.

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