Robert Robinson Taylor: MIT’s first Black graduate and America’s first Black architect

Michael Eli Dokosi February 11, 2020
Robert Robinson Taylor via

He is Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) first Black student and graduate. He is also regarded as the nation’s first Black architect.

Robert Robinson Taylor born on June 8, 1868 in Wilmington, N.C., entered MIT in 1888 to study architecture winning a pair of scholarships. He would reach out to Booker T. Washington, who hired him to lead architectural development at the Tuskegee Institute.

After graduating in 1892, Taylor headed to Tuskegee and oversaw the development of many of the campus buildings that are still standing today. For nearly 40 years, Taylor was the lead architect on campus and helped develop architectural coursework for the school. He was of immense help to principals Booker T. Washington and Robert R. Moton.

Robert Robinson Taylor: MIT’s first Black graduate and America's first Black architect
Thrasher Hall at Tusksegee University

Taylor also designed numerous buildings at Tuskegee as well as significant structures in Selma and Birmingham in Alabama and in Virginia, Texas, and North Carolina. The nation’s first academically trained African American architect was also appointed to the board of trustees at what is now Fayetteville State University.  

Taylor’s father Henry Taylor was an enslaved carpenter and merchant who gained his freedom while his mother, Emily Still came from a free black family. He was the youngest of four siblings. Before MIT, he excelled at the Gregory Institute, an American Missionary Association school.

During the 1890s, Taylor created plans for wooden schools and cottages that Tuskegee then offered to African Americans in small hamlets all over Alabama with the goal of providing better housing than tumbled-down log cabins and rough tenant shacks and thereby encourage healthful living and community pride.

Robert Robinson Taylor.jpg
Robert Robinson Taylor via Wikimedia Commons

“At Tuskegee, he designed a number of buildings on the campus, including the Science Hall (now Thrasher Hall); Booker T. Washington’s home, The Oaks; a vast building with a classical veranda for the Department of Mechanical Industries; and the building that Taylor considered his masterpiece, the Chapel. Its picturesque exterior featured a 105-foot tower, dual entrances for boys and girls, and a cavernous interior of high-arched hammer-beam trusses that so impressed writer (and Tuskegee student) Ralph Ellison that he described it in his novel Invisible Man. A black New York journalist termed the Chapel a “Cathedral in the Black Belt” and suggested that every southerner must make at least one pilgrimage to view it. Tragically, the Chapel burned in 1957.”

In 1899, Taylor moved to Cleveland, Ohio, because he wanted to learn newer building methods. Nonetheless, he continued to provide designs for Tuskegee including a library, an administration building, three brick dormitories, two bath houses with swimming pools, and the Huntington Memorial Academic Building.

Robert Robinson Taylor: MIT’s first Black graduate and America's first Black architect
Rockefeller Hall at Tuskegee University

In 1929, Taylor travelled to Kakata, Liberia in Africa to help found the Booker Washington Agricultural and Industrial Institute, a normal, industrial, and agricultural school modeled on Tuskegee. He studied the country’s economic opportunities and wrote a curriculum for the school that would support those varied endeavors. He proposed governance and staffing, sketched a campus plan, and designed several buildings.

“In 1932, Taylor returned to his hometown of Wilmington, where he worked for racial justice during the last decade of his life. In December 1942, while visiting family in Tuskegee, he collapsed in the chapel he had designed and built and died on December 13, in the hospital he had designed and built. He was buried in Wilmington’s Pine Forest Cemetery, which his father had helped found. Taylor was married twice. He wed Beatrice Rochon in 1898, and the couple had four children. Beatrice died in 1906, and in 1912, Taylor married Nellie Chestnut, with whom he had one child. Taylor was 78.”

Robert Robinson Taylor: MIT’s first Black graduate and America's first Black architect
Carnegie Library at Tuskegee University

Former senior presidential advisor Valerie Jarrett, a great-granddaughter of Taylor was present at the ceremony when the U.S. Postal Service officially released Taylor’s stamp to celebrate him.

Robert Robinson Taylor: MIT’s first Black graduate and America's first Black architect
Colored Masonic Temple in Birmingham

Last Edited by:Kent Mensah Updated: February 11, 2020


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