By Paula R. Stiles
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William W. Smith (1862-1937) was one of the first African-American architects in the United States and the first in Charlotte, NC. His career demonstrates the difficulties faced by free African American contractors and architects following the Civil War and Recontruction, as well as the difficulties of survival of early African American architecture. Though Smith was born in 1862, all of his known career is encompassed by the Segregation period and is heavily influenced by the cultural impositions made on architecture by segregation laws that forced blacks and whites to live, worship and do business in separate spheres.
He is also a good example of a tradesman who crossed over to designing buildings in addition to building them. Part of what may have helped him further his career as a trade mason and contractor was that he was a local leader of the African American community and a member of Prince Hall Freemasonry as part of the Paul Drayton Lodge # 7. An early branch of Freemasonry founded in Boston by free black Prince Hall in the late 18th century, when white lodges refused to take in African Americans, Prince Hall Freemasonry was well-established in North Carolina by the middle of the 19th century. Smith was apparently a devoted lifelong member. The three major interests that come through in his architecture are church (the Grace African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, which he built), education (Livingston College, for which he taught, and also built, repaired and designed several buildings), and the Masonic lodge.
Smith most likely began life as a slave, since he was born during the Civil War in Mecklenburg County. His father, Robert C. Smith, was born in 1831 and died when Smith was around fourteen years old. William married his wife Keziah E. Eggleston (1860-1925), who was from South Carolina, in 1877. He later married a woman named Mary, who eventually survived him. While he had no children of his own, he was survived by a stepson, Arthur Anderson. All evidence indicates he never left Mecklenburg County and most of his known work, particularly after 1910, was in Charlotte.
Little is known about his early life or career. He does not appear to have had the formal education of the first professionally trained African American architect in the U.S., younger contemporary and fellow North Carolinian Robert Robinson Taylor (1868-1942), who came from Wilmington. Instead, he apprenticed in the trades. Previous architects John Merrick and Henry Beard Delaney came from out of state or had some white ancestry, indicating that architecture had not been accessible as a career to most local African American tradesmen up to that point.
Smith does not appear in records until 1886, when he shows up as one of the founders of the Grace African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (a branch of Methodism that dated to around the beginning of the 19th century) in Charlotte that year, along with his wife Keziah. Though Smith did not design the church (it was designed by Hayden, Wheeler, and Schwend, who normally designed courthouses, along an auditorium plan), his later style is illuminated in the church’s final appearance. He incorporated both Gothic (the crenellated towers) and Classical (columns and pilasters) elements into the final design, working in brick, marble, ironwork, and even oak (for the interior). He was also instrumental in getting it built, agreeing to supply the materials and labor if the congregation raised money for it.
Smith’s support for his congregation extended even further to designing and building a sanctuary for the church in 1902 (the original architects of the church having disbanded a few years before). In the 1890s, he began to appear as a brick mason in the Charlotte City Directory. He did not start to be reported as an architect until the turn of the century. Though he had no formal education, he was not self-taught, nor did he invent the African American tradition of masonry in Charlotte wholesale. He apprenticed with William Houser, a noted local bricklayer in Charlotte’s uptown Second Ward, known as Brooklyn. Brooklyn was a relatively self-contained haven for African Americans in the city as Segregation took hold. It included many African American businesses and was a symbol of African American pride in Charlotte.
While Charlotte rapidly expanded following the Civil War, African Americans like Houser and his protege dominated the masonry field in the industry. Smith even taught bricklaying at African American-founded Livingston College in Salisbury in the early part of the 20th century. Livingston College, which began existence as Zion Wesley Institute in Concord in 1879 (moving to Salisbury in 1882), was the first A.M.E. Zion school in the state and an early example of a college founded and controlled by African Americans. Bishop James W. Hood, Joseph C. Price (who died in 1893), and William Henry Goler (who succeeded him in and retired in 1917) were all early leaders of the college.
A.M.E. Zion’s desire to bring in African American recruits and help support the leadership of the African American community led to a name change in 1885. It was in commemoration of the famous missionary explorer in Africa, Dr. David Livingston, who had died in what is now Zambia in 1873. Livingston was an early, notable example of a European who was sympathetic and respectful toward Africans: a good example of A.M.E. Zion’s goals.
After building the church, Smith became closely involved in A.M.E. Zion’s other great local endeavor, Livingston College. His first project as an architect was probably the restoration of Ballard Hall in 1905 on the Livingston College campus. The next year, he designed Hood Hall. He also designed Goler Hall. Both were named after the college’s early presidents.
Smith also designed several business buildings downtown in Charlotte. He was the architect for the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Publishing House (1911), the Afro-American Mutual Insurance Company building (1911), and the now-famous Mecklenburg Investment Company Building (1922). All were in the same general vicinity around South Brevard and 3rd Street (close to the Grace African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church), though only the Mecklenburg Investment Company Building now survives. The other two, like many African American buildings in the U.S., fell victim to the urban planning movement in the 1950s and 1960s, which disproportionately targeted poorer neighborhoods for renovation and destruction of older buildings deemed obsolete. Smith also designed his own family mausoleum, which still stands in Pinewood Cemetery, as well as one for a local family, Jones. This is the only known personal structure of his surviving, though the Mecklenburg Investment Company Building is generally regarded as his master work.
Smith’s style was unique and he went to great lengths to demonstrate the versatility of brick as a building material. Though he used other materials with equal skill, brickwork was his signature. He also taught his style at Livingstone College, to the point that students created the bricks used in the projects he designed and restored there. He was especially fond of geometric (particularly diamond-shaped), multicolored designs that resembled Beaux Arts, or 15th century, yellow-monochrome, Mudejar brickwork in Spain, but his main influences were Gothic and a sort of vernacular-flavored Richardsonian Romanesque. His buildings had a square solidity and simplicity that contrasted with his ornate and colorful brickwork. His church (which was not entirely his own design) also had Gothic Revival and Classical elements, including a large bell tower.
Smith was so well-respected locally that even white-owned newspapers of the area acknowledged his death in 1937. A.M.E. Zion wrote a eulogy for him in its newsletter, as he was a great success for the denomination. Smith was a signal example of the self-reliant African American businessman ideal that both African American leaders and sympathetic white groups like A.M.E. Zion promoted after the Civil War and during the early years of Segregation (1900-1939). Like his contemporary Booker T. Washington, Smith promoted the ideals of African American education and community involvement. He created a variety of still-iconic structures and was one of the small group of African American architects in the United States in the early 20th century. By all surface standards, he was a great success, both in individual terms and for his community.
But Smith’s successes obscured his precarious and isolated situation as a prominent African American architect during the Segregation period. The works he did were all on African American-related projects. Except for the business buildings, they were all related to his church and denomination. The college was African American. The business buildings themselves were for African American businesses.
Though he is famous in Charlotte and also had a significant influence on the A.M.E. Zion denomination, Smith does not appear in most architectural biographies or those of famous North Carolinians. He does not even appear in most African American biographical dictionaries, perhaps because they tend to have a strong focus on entertainment and sports. Outside of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, he is almost unknown, while contemporary architects who contributed far less have more fame. It is difficult to perceive this as not related directly to Segregation.
Smith’s entire community operated in the same relative obscurity. The Mecklenburg Investment Company Building was commissioned by several African American businesses in the first place because no whites would let them rent their buildings. The African American business community desperately needed office space, so these businesses pooled their money and commissioned the only African American architect in the area to build one for them. A demonstration of how cramped for space was that community in Charlotte, despite their industry and rapid expansion, was that these buildings housed several businesses and different concerns at once.
One building also housed a Prince Hall lodge in addition to African American businesses. As Smith’s religious devotion came out in his work at his church and Livingston College, his devotion to Freemasonry came out in his work on these office buildings. Smith and his community’s world was constrained, a safe space that was nonetheless small, with the church and the office buildings built close to each other. Their proximity also reflects the deep devotion to religion that permeated even secular concerns in turn-of-the-century African American North Carolina.
This constraint was probably not all voluntary. Smith was limited to work in his own community and could not take commissions from white clients. The more visible and lucrative contracts of the white community were not open to him as an architect (though he might work on them as a bricklayer).
In light of how Smith’s surviving work, even that which he did not design, was so focused on the African American community, it is also possible that he chose to concentrate on building for his own community to the exclusion of personal financial advancement through doing construction jobs for the white community. Smith’s powerful and colorful buildings reflect a great deal of pride in his own considerable skill in masonry and ability to parlay that skill into designing entire buildings. His choice of projects also shows a great deal of pride in his community. But their light was largely kept under the bushel of Segregation.
Catherine W. Bishir. North Carolina Architecture. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill: 1990.
Catherine W. Bishir and Michael T. Southern. A Guide to the Historical Architecture of Piedmont North Carolina. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill: 2003.
Jeffrey B. Leak. “Memories of Brooklyn: A black man’s search for the ‘warmth of other suns’ leads him back to his Southern roots,” Charlotte Magazine (August 27, 2014).
“What is the A.M.E. Zion Church?” Greater Centennial A.M.E. Zion Church.
“Pioneering Black Architects in North Carolina,” North Carolina Modernist Houses.
“William W. Smith,” Lost Charlotte: The Queen City of the South’s Past Revisited.