Taking A Look At The Legacy Of America’s Preeminent Black Architect, Phil Freelon

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Written by Ann Brown
Phil Freelon
Philip Freelon, lead architect, poses for a portrait at the National Museum of African American History and Culture on Thursday, May 7, 2015, in Washington. (AP Photo/Brett Carlsen)

You name any contemporary building dedicated to African-American culture and most likely it’s been designed by Phil Freelon, considered the most prominent working African-American architect in the United States.

He’s designed the National Museum of African American History and Culture and other major museum projects, such as Atlanta’s National Center for Civil Rights, San Francisco’s Museum of the African Diaspora, and Charlotte’s Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture.

Despite his many successes, Freelon knows he is one of few. “If you have a talented young African-American, their family will likely know a lawyer, doctor, teacher or a clergyman, but not an architect,” Freelon said. “My parents, who were both college-educated, didn’t know an architect of any color, and certainly not a Black one. Diversity is a huge problem in our profession.”


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“According to a 2017 report from the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards, 90% of architects identified as white, 5% as Asian, 2% as African American, and 2% as other. Only 19% are female. The percentage of African-American architects has remained steady at 2% for the last several years,” Fast Company reported.

And Freelon, 65, is doing his part to boost the number of Black architects. His firm, the Freelon Group, nurtures young Black architects. He also speaks at predominantly minority schools and launched the Freelon Fellowship in 2015. It provides financial aid so a student from an underrepresented group can attend the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

Freelon, who was named by Fast Company as its Architect of the Year in 2017, grew up in Philadelphia and attended Central High School, a predominantly white, all-boys magnet school. He went on to enroll at HBCU Hampton University in Virginia before transferring to North Carolina State.

“During summers, Freelon worked for a professor at the Durham-based architectural firm of John D. Latimer and Associates and continued at the firm’s Taunton, Massachusetts, office while pursuing a master’s degree at MIT, which he completed in 1977. He worked briefly for a large firm, 3/D International in Houston, before returning to Durham to join O’Brien Atkins Associates, where he soon became the firm’s youngest partner,” ABC News reported.

By 1989, Freelon was awarded a fellowship to study independently for a year at Harvard. In 1990 he launched his own firm, the Freelon Group. Today, it employs more than 50 employees. And of those employees about 40 percent are women and 30 percent are people of color.

“When I decided to start my own practice, I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to do and not do,” Freelon told the Undefeated. “I wasn’t going to design prisons, strip malls or casinos. The work that excited me were schools, libraries and similar projects that positively impacted the community.”

Of his work he added: “I want to do something for my culture, for my people, and for my community.”


About Ann Brown

Ann Brown has been a freelance writer for more than two decades. Her work has appeared in CocoaFab, Black Enterprise, Essence, MadameNoire.com, New York Trend, Upscale, Moguldom, AFKInsider, The Network Journal, Playboy, Africa Strictly Business, For Harriet, Pathfinders, Black Meetings & Tourism, Frequent Flier, Girl, Honey, Source Sports, The Source, Black Radio Exclusive, and Launch. She studied journalism at New York University and has her B.A. Born in New York, Ann lived in Praia, Cabo Verde, for nearly a decade. She created “An American In Cabo Verde,” a Facebook community.