Education

Duke honors black architect who designed 40 campus buildings in 1920s

Posted May 4

— Despite attacks on African-Americans during the Jim Crow era, one black man quietly made a footprint that became one of the biggest icons in North Carolina.

Most people have not heard of Julian Abele, but his work can be seen by taking a look in almost any direction on the Duke University campus.

Abele was the chief designer at the architectural firm behind at least 40 campus buildings, but his name has been relatively unknown because of the color of his skin.

“The fact of his race was not promoted. It was not talked about,” said Duke University archivist Vallerie Gillispie.

Abele was a black man during the Jim Crow Era of the 1920s, when lynchings were common and voting rights didn’t exist.

Abele designed Duke University knowing that segregation would not allow him to attend.

“He did come to Durham, but he wasn’t allowed to stay in the hotel downtown because he was black. So, I think he felt the sting of racism very acutely,” Gillispie said.

While Abele remained in the shadows in the south, his Philadelphia-based bosses recognized his talent. Abele was the highest paid member at his architectural firm, making the modern-day equivalent of $300,000 per year.

Although Abele’s story was in the shadows, Duke University is hoping to bring it to light by renaming a large portion of campus in his honor.

“Seeing that a black man was responsible for this beautiful and inspiring campus is very inspiring to me and I think inspiring to everyone that visits here,” Gillispie said.

A plaque honoring Abele reads “if you still seek to find evidence of his talent, all you have to do is look around.”

Abele has also made history in other areas. He was the first black man to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania with an architectural degree.

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  • Clarence Drumgoole May 5, 10:47 a.m.
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    Race matters, because of your remark, Smithe!

  • Matt Smithe May 4, 6:34 p.m.
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    Why does his race matter, as if this has any bearing on his being an architect? Just more pot-stirring by the racist liberals at WRAL.