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The Promissory Note and Notes on Jacob Lawrence's "The Architect, 1959"

Photo: Photograph of Jacob Lawrence, Carl Van Van Vechten, Courtesy of the Library of Congress

In the summer of 1941, A. Philip Randolph, founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, called for a march on Washington to draw attention to the exclusion of African Americans from positions in the national defense industry, then a feverishly growing enterprise supplying material to the Allies in World War II. For African Americans there were high levels of unemployment, minimal wage employment, and persistent racial segregation in the South. In March of 1963, Randolph telegraphed Martin Luther King and asked for his participation in another march—this time “for Negro job rights”—being planned for August.

On August 28, 1963, as his eyes fell on the Reflecting Pool, the Washington Monument and the United States Capital building, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered these words:

“In a sense we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked 'insufficient funds.' But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check—a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice. We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now.”

Little did Dr. King know that a month and fifty-three years later in the distance to his left, a corona would rise toward the sky, confirming that the check had indeed been cashed, that the vaults of opportunity of this nation had opened to build a monument to his triumph and the triumph of his people.

Enter the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

The Ghanaian architect Sir David Adjaye, OBE RA, referred to as the greatest architect of this generation, collaborated with a team of renowned architects to build a lasting tribute to the triumph of African American people from enslavement to freedom, “from dark to light.”

During daylight hours, at times the museum building itself appears to be golden, nearly aflame; upon nightfall, it shimmers with glints of browns and black. This magnificent color wheel, with its gradient changes, is a metaphor that reflects the diversity of the community served by the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

The museum has arrived at an important time and boldly disrupts the national mall, shunning its uniformity; while recognizing the value of tradition, it presents a more expansive conversation about how we understand the world now. For many, the modern architecture of the building is a bold and striking contrast to its neoclassical neighbors; however, for those with a robust knowledge of West African architecture, the distinctively tiered, upside-down ziggurat is fashioned after the early West African architecture of the Hausa and Ashanti Kingdoms, known for their ziggurat distinction and revered as “classical” African architecture. In a sense, the NMAAHC joined an “already in progress” conversation on classical architecture, given that virtually every building on the mall is inspired by the Greek or Egyptian “classical” model. In other words, the NMAAHC merely expands the extent language of the mall, allowing the museum to serve as a vector for educating the African American community through architecture.

Not the architecture of the building, but through architecture.

Mike Ford is a forward-thinking designer also known as the “hip-hop architect.” He received his Master of Architecture degree from the University of Detroit Mercy, located in the city of Detroit, which boasts an 85 percent African American population. It was during his undergraduate studies (also at Detroit Mercy) that Ford met his first African American architect. During this meeting, Ford took stock of the dearth of African American architects, not just in Detroit, but in the entire country.

In an interview in March of 2017, Ford remarked that not much has changed since he was in school and that “the current state of diversity and inclusion in architecture is very dismal.” Ford also proposed that the lack of African American architects has not simply had an impact on the profession; by default, it also negatively impacts the African American community.

“Black communities have routinely been uprooted and have been the predominant victims of eminent domain, because they’ve had no advocate at the table, the lack of African Americans as decision makers in shaping their communities has also led to a distrust of architects. Having more African American architects and planners would heal some of the wounds the profession has inflicted on the black community. The profession has never been highly desirable to black communities because it is associated with the environmental injustices we have faced for decades. People will have a better perception of architecture as a profession if they see people in it who look like them and represent them at the table.”

In a 1999 article, activist, author, and public intellectual Cornel West insisted that the reluctance to engage in serious analysis of how architecture was controlled by corporate and political authorities would continue to lead to the destruction of black communities. With respect to architectural firms, Mike Ford posited that “Firms can remain relevant, foster innovation, come up with better solutions for the communities they serve, and improve their bottom line by taking concrete steps to create a culture that fosters diversity in architecture.”

While visiting Black Refractions: Highlights From The Studio Museum In Harlem, at the Smith College Museum of Art, the only venue in the Northeast that was fortunate enough to present this landmark exhibition, I found myself standing before Jacob Lawrence’s painting, The Architect, 1959. I thought of the NMAAHC. I thought of Public Law 107, signed by President Calvin Coolidge, that supported the creation of such a building, and I thought of the great and mighty walk that it would take before the NMAAHC finally joined the other “palaces of culture” on the National Mall. On September 24, 2016, it would finally be ushered in with an opening dedication ceremony, fourteen presidents later, by Barack Hussein Obama, the first African American President of the United States.

Seeing Lawrence’s architect seated at his drafting table, I thought of Max Bond, one of the members of the NMAAHC design team. Prior to his death in 2009, Bond was especially known for selecting building materials associated with African American labor unions and for his concept of “material justice.” Noticing the outstretched arms of the architect in Lawrence’s canvas, I thought of Zena Howard, the NMAAHC’s Senior Project Manager, who led its design team, one of a little more than 400 African American women architects in the United States, in a profession that numbers over 110,000 members.

Between 1968-74, Jacob Lawrence produced his Builders Paintings Series. It conveyed his hopes for his people through construction which in turn would improve the quality of life of black people. Though The Architect, 1959 came nearly a decade before The Builders Paintings Series, the steel construction beams floating across the skyline, reminiscent of crosses, already convey his vision for the uplift and salvation of his people.

The “great vaults of opportunity” that Dr. King would speak of in 1963 were clearly already beginning to open in Jacob Lawrence’s vision for the future of his people.


KYMBERLY S. NEWBERRY is from Los Angeles, California. A proud Frances Perkins Scholar, she received her B.A. in International Relations from Mount Holyoke College. She is a Ph.D. student in the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at UMass Amherst.

This is first of two blogs on the Black Refractions Gallery. You can read Part Two here.


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