Robert R. Taylor
Robert Robinson Taylor (June 8, 1868 – December 13, 1942) was an American architect; the first accredited African-American architect. He was also the first African-American student enrolled at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1888. Additionally, he designed many of the buildings on the campus of Tuskegee University prior to 1932, and he served as second-in-command to its founder and first President, Booker T. Washington.
Taylor’s first building project on the Tuskegee University campus was the Science Hall (Thrasher Hall) completed in 1893. The new Science Hall was constructed entirely by students, using bricks made also by students under Taylor’s supervision. The project epitomized Washington’s philosophy of instilling in Tuskegee students, the descendants of former enslaved Africans, the value and dignity of physical labor and it provided an example to the world of the capabilities of African Americans in the building trades, and it underscored the larger potential of the manual training curricula being developed at Tuskegee. A number of other buildings followed, including the original Tuskegee Chapel, erected between 1895 and 1898. After the Chapel came The Oaks, built in 1899, home of the Tuskegee University president.
From 1899 to 1902, he returned to Cleveland, Ohio, to work on his own and for the architectural firm of Charles W. Hopkinson. Upon his return to Tuskegee from Cleveland in 1902, he was architect and director of “mechanical industries” until his retirement in the mid-1930s. To develop a sound curriculum at Tuskegee, both Washington and Taylor drew inspiration from MIT as a model. Taylor’s own admiration for MIT as a model for Tuskegee’s development was conveyed in a speech that he delivered at MIT in 1911. Taylor cited examples to the 1911 US Congress in a paper to illustrate the kinds of rigorous ideas, approaches, and methods that Tuskegee had adopted from MIT and successfully applied within the context of a black educational institution.
Taylor also designed buildings that were not at Tuskegee. These include Carnegie libraries at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, and at Livingstone College in Salisbury, North Carolina. With his later partner, the black architect Louis H. Persley, he did large buildings at Selma University in Selma, Alabama, and the Colored Masonic Temple, which is also an office building and entertainment venue, in Birmingham, Alabama.
He served for a period as vice-principal of Tuskegee, beginning in 1925. In 1929, under the joint sponsorship of the Phelps-Stokes Fund, the Liberian government, and Firestone Rubber, he went to Kakata, Liberia to lay out architectural plans and devise a program in industrial training for the proposed Booker Washington Institute – “the Tuskegee of Africa.” Robert Taylor served on the Mississippi Valley Flood Relief Commission, appointed by President Herbert Hoover, and was chairman of the Tuskegee chapter of the American Red Cross.
Following his retirement to his native Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1935, the governor of North Carolina appointed Taylor to the board of trustees of what is now Fayetteville State University. Moreover, in 1942, less than a decade after his retirement from Tuskegee, he wrote to the secretary of his MIT class indicating that he had just been released from treatment for an unspecified illness at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. “Thanks to a kind Providence and skillful physicians,” he said, “I am much better now.”
The housing project in Chicago, Robert Taylor Homes, was named after his son, Robert Rochon Taylor, a civic leader and former Chairman of the Chicago Housing Authority.
The US Postal Service has a postage stamp with his likeness.
His great-granddaughter, Valerie Jarrett, was a Senior Advisor to Former President Barack Obama.