What Do Black Architects Have To Do With Old Buildings on Main Street? – Part 2

There is part of the Rocky Mount black/white story that I don’t understand because of how and where I was raised. It is hard for me to believe that people in 2019 could have the attitude, “Why should I care about old buildings on Main Street that a bunch of white people owned while black people stayed over in the Douglas Block area?” But that, of course, was how it was. I search for ways to write about these old buildings so they become valuable to everyone. I grew up listening to Paul Harvey and his radio program, The Rest of the Story. It taught me early on that offered a way to view things differently, we can change our viewpoint.

You’ve heard, maybe even said, “Anybody But Duke.” Julian Abele, black architect, played a significant role in the architecture of Duke’s campus, which you will enjoy knowing about regardless of your loyalties. Here is a short video, about Julian Abele.

Julian Abele (1881–1950)

Julian Abele was one of America’s most important architects. As the first black graduate of architecture at the University of Pennsylvania in 1902, Abele spent his entire career at the Philadelphia firm of the Gilded Age architect Horace Trumbauer. Abele was working for Trumbauer when they received a commission to expand the campus of Duke University, a whites-only university in Durham, North Carolina. Although Abele’s original architectural drawings for Duke University have been described as works of art, it wasn’t until the 1980s that Abele’s efforts at Duke were celebrated, the North Quad named for him.

J. Max Bond, Jr. (1935–2009)

J. Max Bond, Jr. was born in 1935 in Louisville, Kentucky and educated at Harvard, with a bachelor’s degree in 1955 and a master’s degree in 1958. When Bond was a student at Harvard, racists burned a cross outside his dormitory. Concerned, a white professor at the university advised Bond to abandon his dream of becoming an architect. Years later, in an interview for the Washington Post, Bond recalled his professor saying “There have never been any famous, prominent black architects…You’d be wise to choose another profession.” Fortunately, Bond had spent a summer in Los Angeles working for black architect Paul Williams and he knew that he could overcome racial stereotypes.

In 1958, he received a Fulbright scholarship to study in Paris and went on to live in Ghana for four years. Newly independent from Britain, the African nation was welcoming to young, black talent—more so than the American architectural firms in the early 1960s.

Bond was responsible for the museum component at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum at the World Trade Center site at the time of his death. Bond remains an inspiration to generations of minority architects.

I write about these two men in particular as examples of those who stepped beyond the constraints of their time and place. The confines of the Douglas Block once exsisted, but like Abele and Bond, along Main Street and beyond, black men and women are no longer limited to that Douglas Block world. They are working to create new businesses, involved with saving Main Street and surrounds, running for office. Leading!  A new generation of young people have planted their flag on Main Street and are making good things happen. This is an important reason to care about a bunch of old buildings for their sake, their young families, their dreams. Mr. Abele and Mr. Bond represent ‘the rest of the story.’ We have lived to the other side of what once was. The future Abele and Bond paved is today’s reality. Those who insist black people are still standing on the curb on Thomas Street dishonor people like Abele and Bond, who accomplished so much, not only for themselves, but for those who have followed.

Tonight, New Year’s Eve, black and white, will be gathering at the Mill. That’s the new reality. The same men and women who regularly speechify at the City Council meetings, pontificate about the dark shadow among us and preach racism, have exceeded their expiration date. More and more they are ignored by those who reject the old rhetoric for the new language of possibilities. The new reality is that young black and white are building a future together on Main Street. These young people won’t be captured by the litany of old injustices, they’re too busy trying to make a positive difference, create something that benefits the community, make a meaning life for themselves and those they love.  Go downtown, you’ll see.

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