In September 1888, a young man hoping to become a builder traveled from North Carolina to Massachusetts, to take MIT’s entrance exam. Robert Taylor did more than pass the test. Taylor, who in 1892 was the first African-American to graduate from MIT, became an American trailblazer as the nation’s first prominent African-American architect, an influential figure who designed elegant buildings and trained generations of students to draw up and engineer structures themselves.
Indeed, as the main architect and director of “industrial training” from the 1890s into the 1930s at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, which Booker T. Washington turned into a leading university for African-American students, Taylor designed many of the campus’ most prominent structures, including science buildings, dormitories and its chapel. He also helped build schools and houses in a half-dozen other states, and seemingly influenced Washington’s own educational philosophy, pushing it toward a balance of abstract and practical training.
And while Taylor is not a household name today, his achievements were well known in his own time. After Taylor’s death in 1942, newspaper obituaries described him as a man of “fine character” and “strict integrity” who stood “as a type of American which the nation, without regard to race or creed, can point to with pride and satisfaction.”
‘Mens et manus’ in Alabama
Taylor was born in 1868 and grew up in Wilmington, N.C., where his father — unusually for an African-American in that time and place — ran a building business. The family was determined to give Taylor a strong technical education in building, and set its sights on MIT, home to the first architecture school in the United States.
After voyaging north for the first time and passing MIT’s entrance exam in five subjects — English, algebra, geography, literature and French — Taylor focused on studies in architecture, earning a scholarship and graduating in 1892. His thesis project, “Design for a Soldiers’ Home,” was a detailed plan for a long-term care facility for war veterans. The existing drawings depict a graceful three-story structure in the Beaux Arts style favored at MIT.
Word of Taylor’s success reached Booker T. Washington, who recruited him to the Tuskegee Institute, which Washington had founded in 1881. Taylor stayed at Tuskegee until retirement, apart from a three-year spell when he pursued his own projects.
Unlike the emphasis some other African-American leaders placed on more strictly intellectual education, “the curriculum at Tuskegee stressed manual education, industrial education, and useful crafts that would prepare students for jobs,” wrote Clarence Williams, a former MIT adjunct professor of urban studies and planning, in a biographical essay on Taylor published in 1998. Taylor strengthened that curriculum and expanded the program through the years.
As Williams noted, Taylor also constituted a “healthy influence” on Washington by pushing him to see the value of more abstract subjects in addition to practical fields. In this, Williams suggested, Taylor showed his MIT influence by advocating for the “duality” in education represented by the MIT motto, “Mens et manus” (mind and hand).
At times, Taylor explicitly linked the approaches of MIT and Tuskegee. Taylor spoke at the events commemorating MIT’s 50th anniversary, in 1911, and noted that “some of the methods and plans of the Institute of Technology [MIT] have been transplanted to the Tuskegee Institute and have flourished and grown there.” This included “the love of doing things correctly, of putting logical ways of thinking into the humblest task, of studying surrounding conditions, of soil, of climate, of material and of using them to the best advantage in contributing to build up the immediate community in which the persons live” so that, in turn, America as a whole could flourish.
‘The work of building a diverse community continues’
Long after Taylor’s death, his family continued his pathbreaking legacy. Taylor’s son, Robert, became the first African-American head of the Chicago Housing Authority; his great-granddaughter, Valerie Jarrett, is a senior adviser to President Barack Obama.
At MIT, Taylor’s name remains visible in the form of a named professorship in his honor. Currently, violist Marcus Thompson is the Robert R. Taylor Professor of Music. “As a fellow African-American I feel pride in using his name under my signature,” stated Thompson, responding to questions by e-mail.
Although, as Thompson noted, he is in a different discipline from Taylor, the chair stands for “artistic achievement” broadly, as well as the accomplishments “by underrepresented minority students, student officers and leaders, alumni and alumnae, faculty and staff since he was here.”
As Thompson added: “The work of building a diverse community and of recognizing the strength of its many contributions to the life of MIT, and the world beyond, continues and must be acknowledged.”