Carolina’s Black Designers Are Making Their Voices Heard

In late 2020, I researched and interviewed a number of African American architects and designers in the Triangle area of North Carolina, for my architecture column in the News & Observer in Raleigh. Over years, I’ve written about Julian Abele’s too-often unheralded work on two campuses at Duke University, and of Phil Freelon’s work on Freedom Park in Raleigh, among other monumental works by that Black architect. But there’s a younger generation of African American architects and designers practicing here today – and I wanted to bring their work to the fore. The N&O agreed, and published this column online in early December, 2020. Because today is Martin Luther King Day, it’s appropriate that the column runs again – to honor the contributions of Black designers across Carolina and the nation:



This year, as Black Lives Matter protests stirred a national awakening not seen since the civil rights movement, more attention has focused on Black-owned businesses and companies and the people behind them.

In the Triangle, that means a spotlight on Black architects and designers who have created a series of sparkling buildings in the public realm, not just in their design, but in their celebration of diversity and inclusion.

There’s a common thread among many of the designers I spoke with for this story: Phil Freelon. The late Durham architect, who died in 2019 from ALS, helped pave the way for them. At The Freelon Group, and later Perkins & Will, he led by example, first by lining up the right architects at his firm with the projects they were suited for, and then getting out of their way. He mentored a number of the designers I spoke with and encouraged them when they struck out on their own.

Foremost is the Smithsonian’s African American Museum of History and Culture on the Mall in Washington, D.C., for which Freelon served as architect of record.

Freelon and his associates also designed the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson, and Emancipation Park in Houston. Soon to be completed are his designs for the Motown Museum in Detroit, and closer to home, the North Carolina Freedom Park in downtown Raleigh.

But despite these accomplishments, these Black architects and designers have encountered racial injustices in subtle and overt ways. The designers I spoke with shared that it might come in the form of higher prices from suppliers. There might be difficulties and delays in obtaining loans or lines of credit. Proper credentials for access to trade shows might have to be negotiated in person, rather than by phone or email.

In the search for new business, a Black firm partnering with a large national group often wins over clients when the larger firm is in the lead; Black firms taking the lead are less successful. There’s the initial surprise on clients’ faces when a Black architect enters the room to present – and again, when clients realize how gifted that architect is.

And cultural projects with an African American component often come easily to a Black firm — but mainstream cultural opportunities? Not so much.

Those are some of the thinly veiled injustices experienced. But the designers I talked with described overt acts that surely would not occur with a white person.

For example, a client at a Raleigh architecture firm tells its principal that he doesn’t want to work with a person of color. An IT tech restricts a Black architect’s internet access after finding he’d viewed the BET network online. A Black architect transporting building models to an exhibition is stopped by police on the interstate, and his van is searched without cause.

I found, though, that these Black architects and designers choose optimism over cynicism in a sometimes-difficult environment — and succeed because they care about people and places.

Their love for design is self-evident, and they’re working to make the Triangle a more functional, vibrant and beautiful place. “Ultimately, we’re just trying to better the world,” says Edwin Harris, a co-founder of Evoke Studio in Durham. “I want to do that for whatever community we’re building for.”

Along with Harris, I spoke with four other Black designers practicing here about their experiences and vision:

Victor Vines was born and raised in Pinetops, a small town of about 1,200 people in rural Edgecombe County. But he had big dreams. By the time he graduated from high school, he’d been accepted at the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design and N.C. State’s College of Design.

He chose the College of Design. When he graduated in 1990, Vines worked with local firms. “I bounced around every two years,” he says. “I helped others start firms — that happened three or four times.”

In school and at work, being an African American motivated and pushed him forward as an architect.

“I believed that what I did as a Black man and a Black architect, I had to be better than my white counterparts to stay on the same playing fields,” he says. “It pushes me to be the best I can be.”

He went to work for The Freelon Group in 1994, serving as a vice president for 14 years. In 2008, he set up his own firm in Durham.
Now he and his colleagues collaborate on projects in the public realm, like the recently completed Durham Main Library – with Vines as managing principal and Robert Thomas as designer/design principal. They’ve also designed the North Carolina A&T New Student Center in Greensboro, the Pine Valley Library in Wilmington, and the Henrietta Lacks Bioethics Research Building at Johns Hopkins University.

“We work on libraries, museums and higher education — projects that tell a history and tell it accurately,” Vines says.
It’s no accident that they’re beautiful, too. This firm holds the modern aesthetic — clean lines and open spaces — in high esteem.

Steered toward architecture by his high school shop instructor, Johnson earned a degree in engineering from North Carolina A&T, and a master’s in architecture from Morgan State in Baltimore. He worked for two firms there before returning to North Carolina. He spent three years in Freelon’s office, then seven years with BBH Design (now Ewing Cole), before striking out on his own in Raleigh in 2013.

One of his firm’s most innovative proposals was an entry for a competition for the Fuller & Dudley International Museum of Entrepreneurship, sponsored by the S.B. Fuller Foundation in Kernersville. It will recognize the accomplishments of Black entrepreneurs. His entry may have been the runner-up, but it remains a standout. The architects turned museum typology on its head with a series of exercises in transparency and opacity.

Natural light and views are woven into the fabric of the structure. “The experience is not of walking in the front door but into a series of indoor/outdoor spaces,” he says.

Over the past seven years, his firm’s growth has been exponential. “There’s been steady growth,” he says. “It’s not a major issue for us, but it is an issue for minority firms.”

One of Johnson’s enduring legacies will be his role as mentor. “Having my own practice is a way to diversify the profession,” he says. “I look for African American students in high school to shadow us in their senior year.”

If the students pursue an accredited program, he’ll guarantee them summer employment while they’re in college. “Then I offer them full-time employment when they graduate, or I’ll recommend another firm.”

Architecture may be important to Johnson, but aspiring designers get equal time.

Alicia Hylton-Daniel is a native of Jamaica who moved with her mother to Long Island in the late ’70s, when she was 7 years old. As a pre-teen, she built an architectural model out of a shoebox — her first venture into modern design. But it wasn’t her last.

She ventured into law for a time, working in a Manhattan legal firm and living in Brooklyn. But for an artist, that proved to be a dead end. After moving to Durham in the mid-1990s, she enrolled at Meredith College for an interior design degree. From there she worked with architecture firms in Raleigh and Durham for eight years, establishing her own design/build firm in 2017.

Now she’s into urban infill. In recent years she’s designed and built a series of three strikingly modern homes in downtown Durham.
She and her husband bought a Durham four-square house in 2011 and restored it. They’re now designing and building rental properties, some for moderate-income residents like police officers and firefighters.

Her husband says that every project brings her the opportunity to build a new architectural model.

“I love dense urban neighborhoods, and courtyards, patios, and porches cut out for outdoor spaces,” she says.

In 2007, when Niki McNeill Brown reached the end of her medical studies at UNC-Chapel Hill, she realized she had no interest in continuing in that field.

“Once I got exposed to the business of medicine and the role of a doctor, I didn’t want to do that,” she says. “I’ve always been artistic, and realized that interior design is a blend of all the things I like to do.”

So like Hylton-Daniel, she enrolled at Meredith College, earning her degree in interior design in 2014. By 2018, she’d set up her own Raleigh-based firm, Single Bubble Pop, focusing on private residential and small commercial spaces.

She also studied Black American History at Meredith, especially the history surrounding African American housing, and brings that perspective to her clients, with an educational component.

“There are technological advances that Black Americans contributed, like Lewis Latimer’s light bulb filament developed for Thomas Edison,” she says.

She’s seen an uptick in business recently, but hesitates to attribute that to increased awareness of supporting Black businesses, saying that it could also be the result of people working from home during this time of COVID-19.

Her work has been influenced by travel, especially to Florence, where she studied for a semester. “They know how to live there,” she says. “With the Renaissance and the contemporary way people live in Florence — it’s amazing.”

That spills over into her work for others. “I’m usually bringing something old into your home — and I try to design spaces with existing pieces,” she says. “I like to design with the new and the old.”

She may be a modernist but she’s got one foot firmly planted in the past.

Edwin Harris is a graduate of N.C. State’s College of Design and a Freelon Group alumnus. In 2016, he and two Freelon colleagues, Terry Canada and Billy Askey, formed EVOKE Studio in Durham.

EVOKE’s DNA is wound tightly around the public realm. Harris worked closely with Freelon on the competition for the National Museum of African American History and Culture in D.C., the Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, and Emancipation Park in Houston.

“With Emancipation Park and being the lead designer, the biggest payoff for me is being in a park you designed, with people there interfacing, inspired and living it,” he says. “That’s what gets me going.”

Today, the firm’s design for a visitor center on Lake Phelps at Pettigrew State Park is under construction along the North Carolina coast. At 6,500 square feet, the building takes its cues from its surroundings. It’s conceived as an oversized porch, a symbol of welcome across the state.

But here, the porch is lifted off the ground like nearby boardwalks around the lake, with interactive displays inside a transparent structure. It’s slated to open to the public in 2022.

The driving force behind EVOKE’s architecture is to inspire. “I always want to create spaces that are welcoming and make you want to be there,” he says.

It’s an attitude that makes his firm an up-and-comer for the Triangle — and beyond.

For more, go here.

[slideshow id=2252]