At the beginning of 20th century, large masses of black people were migrating to northern states or between districts of the same towns (like in New York from Tenderloin or San Juan Hill to Harlem, previously occupied by Italians and Jews) because of lower real estate prices, economic crashes, and worsening of conditions for blacks elsewhere, including anti-black riots. Several black real-estate entrepreneurs like Phillip Payton Jr took big part in the organization of such moves.

I wonder if it had any reflexion in the architecture of such districts, except for the probably thriftier use of ornaments, which I believe would clearly result from the low price of the newly created buildings.

I compare it for example to Jewish settlements in Europe or the United States, where their own culture was strongly reflected in local architecture. But while there were plenty of Jewish architects with proper education and a unique style that developed through centuries, with its own symbolism, I'm not aware of anything like that in Black American culture, except for so called shotgun houses.

How did settlements of Black Americans affect the local architecture? Was there anything like a Black American architectural style or symbolism at the beginning of 20th century or later?

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    I don't know about architecture, but they say that his exposure to African art had big influence on Picasso in the beginning of the 20th century, and his influence reached out into many other directions, so there you may have an (indirect) starting point for further explorations.
    – Drux
    Mar 23, 2013 at 16:17
  • Whoa, that takes me back. My wife and my first apartment together was a shotgun in New Orleans. I think that's more a native New Orleans arch. style though.
    – T.E.D.
    Mar 25, 2013 at 19:53
  • Yes, my sources also referred to Southern states, starting from the first half of 19th century. Mar 26, 2013 at 7:31

2 Answers 2


For the most part, you would be talking about what is referred to as vernacular architecture. This was pretty much enforced until the last couple of generations, as "architect" is a licenced profession in the USA, and African Americans (and women) had trouble getting themselves licenced. Paul Williams became the first in 1923, although census results in 1890 showed 43 African Americans making their living that way.

Sadly, there isn't a lot of information available about African American Vernacular Architecture. The East St. Louis Action Research Project claims that much of slavery-era plantation architecture was designed and built by skilled African slaves, and thus reflects a lot of the architectural sensibilities they brought with them from Africa. Much of what is called American Vernacular Architecture (eg: shotgun houses, i houses, dogtrot, etc) they argue flows from that. The I Houses got their name due to their preponderance in Midwestern states (many of which start with the letter I), so the style certainly filtered north eventually.

I think there's a lot more that hasn't really been studied though. For instance, there appears to me to be a certain style common to a lot of African American churches across the country. I can't find a name to it, but it looks kind of like a cross between I-House and Carpenter Gothic, but using brick (not Brick Gothic, which is a name for a different European style). Here are some examples from Illinois, Oklahoma, and Nashville, all built within a couple of decades of 1900.

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Other good places to look for African-American buildings that may have exhibited their own style are pre-Brown schools, and Historically Black College buildings. I think churches would be the best place to look though, as most of the schools were closed and torn down after integration, and the colleges likely did their best to look like white college architecture (I haven't checked into this deeply).

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    Excellent! It's of great help for me and definitely makes research a lot easier. Thanks! Mar 26, 2013 at 15:21

Short Answer: No.

Long answer: No, there probably was nothing like African American architectural style in the early twentieth century.

As you noted in your question African Americans moved from the South to the North in large numbers at the beginning of the 20th century. This was largely due to the beginning of the Jim Crow era in the South. As newcomers in their communities, as well as members of a severely discriminated minority group, there were many structural impairments they faced to developing their own architectural style. For example, as others noted, the American Institute of Architects didn't license an African American to practice as an architect until 1923. His name was Paul Revere Williams, which is an amazing name in of itself, but his story is far more amazing, and worth the read.

Additionally, architecture through it's "parent" industry is a very capital intensive business. As such, it would be increasingly difficult for any community without well established roots, or deep pockets, to get a foothold in the industry. Since most of the African Americans moving north were likely former sharecroppers in the South it is hard to believe they could break into this particular industry.

It is very difficult to find information on the architectural movements of the early twentieth century outside of the major ones of: various Revival movements (I'm thinking mostly Classical, Tudor, Beaux Arts), Arts & Crafts, and the International Style. Although the last style sounds a little late for your questions timeline.

The migration did result in the Harlem Renaissance which was a huge cultural explosion driven by African American artists of all types. If there was an architectural movement to come from the migration this would be the likely birthplace of the movement. The link provided actually breaks down the various areas of art that the renaissance saw activity. One is called "Visual Art", which would presumably possibly contain architecture, but there is no mention of architectural activity. There were a growing number of African Americans that became sculptors; however, it appears that architecture was one area that the renaissance didn't extend into.

I did find an interesting post about a typical African American neighborhood in the South during the time period in question, but the houses fit within existing architectural movements of the period. Specifically, the homes would fall within revival styles. I'm not sure which, because I'm not an architecture historian by any stretch of the imagination.

  • +1 and thanks, I'll definitely check out Paul Revere Williams. I've read earlier about the Harlem Renaissance and also didn't find anything about architecture. Mar 29, 2013 at 16:52
  • @DarekWędrychowski - I think that line of inquiry isn't liable to be very fruitful, as the Harlem neighborhood of NYC was already built up when African Americans started moving there, and much of what was built has been subsequently torn down. One interesting exception is the Abyssinian Baptist Church, probably the most historically significant church in North America. However, I'm not sure if its current building has any uniquely African-American features.
    – T.E.D.
    Mar 29, 2013 at 20:06

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