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Building a Legacy: African Americans' Impact on Construction in the United States

It’s important that we recognize the historical and contemporary contributions of African Americans in the construction trades industry, one of the most important sectors of any functioning society. This contribution extends to many of the country’s most celebrated architectural achievements, including the US Capitol Building and the White House. In fact, according to historian Bob Arnebeck, over 200 Black enslaved individuals worked on building both the White House and the Capitol (via White House History), a fact that is often ignored when discussing the building of our nation’s infrastructure.

Of course, the contributions of African Americans to the construction industry extend far beyond the work that was forced upon them as slaves. Many other important  buildings and landmarks were designed and constructed by Black Americans, along with numerous inventions and innovations that are now considered staples in the sector. 

To celebrate these achievements, let’s take a look at some of the most prominent African American innovators throughout the nation’s history:

  • Shortly after the abolition of slavery, businessman Alexander Miles innovated an electric mechanism to vastly improve elevator door safety

  • In 1919, inventor Alice Parker designed the revolutionary gas furnace, later being rewarded for her efforts by the National Society of Black Physicists. 

  • Famous inventor Frederick Jones came up with a mobile refrigeration unit for trucks.

African Americans have also made an enormous impact in how the construction trades are taught to new generations. 

  • Robert Robinson Taylor broke barriers by becoming the first Black student to be accepted into MIT in 1888, eventually helping to establish the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama with Booker T. Washington. 

Significant strides have also been made specifically for the inclusion of Black women in the construction trades. 

  • In 1942, Beverly Lorraine Greene became  the first African-American female licensed as an architect in the United States.  

  • In 1987, Adrienne Bennett became the first Black woman to receive a master plumber license in the US. Bennett is now the CEO of Benkari Mechanical LLC.

While we celebrate the amazing achievements of Black Americans in other fields, including business, media, and sports, it’s also important to recognize the significant contributions of African Americans to the construction sector, a story that too often goes untold.

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