Taylor, Robert R. (1868-1942)
Robert R. (Robinson) Taylor (June 8, 1868-December 20, 1942), a native of Wilmington, N. C., was a pioneering black architect of national renown, regarded as the first academically trained black architect in the United States and the first black student to graduate from MIT. He was the principal architect at the Tuskegee Institute. His known work in North Carolina is the Carnegie Library at Livingstone College in Salisbury.
Robert R. Taylor was the youngest of four children of Henry and Emily Still Taylor. Though enslaved until Emancipation, Henry Taylor, son of a white slaveholder and an enslaved woman, was a house carpenter who lived and worked in Wilmington essentially as a free man, and he prospered as a builder after the war. Henry and Emily Taylor worked to assure their children’s education. Robert attended Wilmington’s Gregory Normal Institute, an American Missionary Association school with teachers from New England. He also worked for his father and developed construction skills, and in 1888, with his father’s encouragement he entered MIT. Taylor became MIT’s first black graduate in any field and he was, it is believed, the nation’s first academically educated black architect.
After graduating from MIT in 1892, Taylor went to work for Booker T. Washington as architect at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, where he planned and oversaw construction of 45 campus buildings and drew plans for others. He also founded a pre-architecture preparatory program for students and, most importantly, established technical drafting courses for all the young men enrolled in the Boy’s Industries Department. Eventually he would head this largest component of Tuskegee’s entire endeavor and was thus an administrator as well as designer and builder. Especially well known was his Tuskegee campus chapel, completed in 1898 but no longer standing. This was, he said at the end of his life, his masterpiece.
Taylor was also involved in projects beyond Tuskegee, including large and small schools, houses, a lodge, an office building, and libraries. Booker T. Washington encouraged Andrew Carnegie to support construction of Carnegie libraries for several black schools, which included three designed by Robert R. Taylor. Among these is the imposing, neoclassical Carnegie Library (1905) he designed for Livingstone College in Salisbury, North Carolina. Whether he designed any other buildings in North Carolina is not known.
Except for a three-year period in Cleveland around 1900, when he was still Tuskegee’s architect, Taylor continued at Tuskegee as director of the Institute’s largest department while also designing new buildings and supervising their construction. In 1929 he traveled to Monrovia, Liberia as an academic administrator charged with founding and designing the Booker Washington Institute, a co-educational agricultural and trades school on the Tuskegee model. This project earned him an honorary doctorate from Lincoln University, which has Liberian connections. (Taylor’s work in Liberia may remain since the Institute seems to have survived the civil war.)
Taylor retired from Tuskegee in 1932 and returned to Wilmington where he was active in civic affairs and served as a trustee for Fayetteville State Teachers College. He died on December 20, 1942 while visiting Tuskegee—stricken while in his chapel—and was buried at Pine Forest Cemetery in Wilmington. At his death, Wilmington newspapers lauded his character and accomplishments. Shortly afterwards, a new housing development for low-income black families was named in his honor. Many of Taylor’s descendants had distinguished careers, including his great-granddaughter, Valerie Jarrett, political adviser to President Barack Obama. In 2015 the United States Postal Service issued a first-class stamp honoring Robert Robinson Taylor.
- Ellen Weiss, Robert R. Taylor and Tuskegee: An African American Architect Designs for Booker T. Washington (2011).
- Clarence G. Williams, “From ‘Tech’ to Tuskegee: The Life of Robert Robinson Taylor, 1868-1942,” http://libraries.mit.edu/archives/mithistory/blacks-at-mit/taylor.html.
- “Wilmington’s Robert R. Taylor, Pioneer Black Architect,” North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, https://www.ncdcr.gov/blog/2017/01/23/wilmington%E2%80%99s-robert-r-taylor-pioneer-black-architect.
- Dates:1905Location:Salisbury, Rowan CountyStreet Address:Livingstone College Campus, Salisbury, NCStatus:StandingType:EducationalImages Puslished In:Ellen Weiss, Robert R. Taylor and Tuskegee: An African American Architect Designs for Booker T. Washington (2011).Note:Like some of the buildings Taylor designed at Tuskegee and like many other libraries of the day, the Carnegie Library at Livingstone College is a symmetrical brick edifice with a massive classical portico. The Charlotte Observer reported on January 11, 1906, "The students of Livingstone are hard at work upon the Carnegie Library building, a donation of Andrew Carnegie last spring. . . . Rowan granite is being used where it is necessary and all the work is being done by colored artisans. Contractor W. W.Smith, so well known in Charlotte, is building the library and has scores of the college boys helping him. . . . The college boys make the bricks [and] do the carpentering work. . . ."