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The architectural legacy of civil rights leader Whitney Young

A new exhibit at the Octagon House highlights his lasting contributions

Whitney M. Young Jr.
The Architects Foundation

In June 1968, almost three months after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. sparked civil unrest across the country, civil rights leader Whitney M. Young Jr. admonished a room filled with city planners about their indifference toward inequality.

“You are not a profession that has distinguished itself by your social and civic contributions to the cause of civil rights,” Young chastised the audience, which had gathered in Portland, Oregon for the American Institute of Architects’ (AIA) National Convention that year. “You are most distinguished by your thunderous silence and your complete irrelevance.”

He was delivering the keynote address at the convention as the executive director of the National Urban League, a group focused on improving the lives of African Americans that was founded in 1910. Young’s fervent remarks have been called the “speech that woke up architecture”—a field that, five decades later, continues to struggle with diversity.

Today, his words are inscribed on the walls of the Octagon House in Foggy Bottom. The historic house museum is hosting a new exhibit on Young’s legacy and those of architects who, since his time, have advanced social justice through equitable spaces and buildings.

In the telling of its organizers, the exhibit is also the first of its kind for the Octagon, which has traditionally featured displays about the AIA’s contemporary work and the War of 1812. (President James Madison signed the Treaty of Ghent at the house, ending that war.)

“I get goosebumps every time I hear [Young’s] quote,” says Marci B. Reed, executive director of the Architects Foundation. The foundation is jointly curating the exhibit—titled “50 Years After Whitney Young Jr.”—with the AIA. It runs through Nov. 24 and admission is free.

“He dressed them down for not doing their job, frankly, as community builders to heal the nation,” adds Reed. “In particular at that time, there were high-rise tenements being built in major urban cities which just further segregated the poor population [from] those that were thriving in the vibrant economy.”

In his speech, Young underscored how architects “were worsening a lot of the urban ills of the day through their buildings,” according to Reed. He discussed what he called “vertical slums”: buildings 35 or 40 stories tall that lacked amenities like public-area restrooms and recreational spaces despite housing hundreds of families.

Young argued that such deficient conditions were by design.

“That architects as a profession wouldn’t as a group stand up and say something about this is disturbing to me. You are employers, you are key people in the planning of our cities today. You share the responsibility for the mess we are in terms of the white noose around the central city. It didn’t just happen. We didn’t just suddenly get this situation. It was carefully planned.”

His 1968 address to the AIA made a lasting impression on the practice of architecture over the past half-century, inspiring diversity scholarships and awards in his name.

Young died by drowning in Lagos, Nigeria in 1971, when he was 49. President Richard Nixon delivered a eulogy at his funeral in Lexington, Kentucky—the state where Young was born—calling him “a very complex man” and “one of the most eloquent speakers of our time.”

“Whitney Young’s genius was: He knew how to accomplish what other people were merely for,” Nixon said.

One room at the exhibit displays photos and biographies of winners of the Whitney M. Young Jr. Award from 1972 to today. These architects and organizations were recognized for tackling social issues like affordable housing and universal access—the idea that buildings should be designed to accommodate people regardless of ability or age.

Whitney M. Young Jr. Award recipients at the exhibit’s opening night reception: Leon Bridges, Tamara Eagle Bull, John Spencer, Harry Robinson, Sharon Sutton, Clyde Porter, and Stanford Britt
Obi Okolo, courtesy of the Architects Foundation

The winners “have contributed a massive amount to the community,” says Damon Leverett, the AIA’s managing director of workforce development and strategy. “We wanted to be able to tell some of their stories.” Another section of the exhibit includes a diversity timeline for the profession where visitors can read comments from the AIA on equity and inclusion.

Reed says the Octagon is transitioning “from just being a house museum to being a metaphor for what architects and architecture mean for culture.” “Whitney Young stated it very plainly: You are supposed to be community builders,” she notes. “What are you doing?”

The field still has much work to do. African Americans make up only about 2 percent of licensed architects in the U.S., even though they represent a much greater share of the general population. “We haven’t made the progress we might have wanted to make, but we’re as committed,” says Reed.

Opening night at the exhibit
Obi Okolo, courtesy of the Architects Foundation

To help address diversity issues in the profession, this year the Architects Foundation awarded 20 new scholarships to students attending accredited architecture schools, quadrupling the 2017 number. Other efforts include a focus on K-through-12 architecture education and the upcoming AIA Design Justice Summit in New Orleans, which will take cues from Young’s message.

“We hope [the exhibit] will demonstrate how seriously the AIA and the Architects Foundation take Young’s charge today,” Reed says.

50 Years after Whitney Young Jr.” is on display at the Octagon through Nov. 24, 2018. Located at 1799 New York Ave. NW, the museum is open to the public from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. on Thursdays through Saturdays. Paid private tours for groups of five or more outside of regular hours are available upon request, and there is an online exhibit to explore as well.

Octagon Museum

1799 New York Avenue Northwest, , DC 20006 Visit Website