Everett Fly, FASLA, is an architect and landscape architect based in San Antonio. He studied architecture at UT Austin and was the first African-American graduate of the landscape architecture program at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Much of his work has been in the documentation and preservation of early African American building sites. President Barack Obama awarded him the National Humanities Medal in 2014. The following conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Aaron Seward: How did you become interested in architecture?
Everett Fly: I’ve always been interested in buildings and houses, and in how things worked. When I was a toddler, we happened to live in a place where they had an African American man who was a carpenter. The people who owned the place were white businesspeople and they had a small estate. My mom was one of the maids. I would follow the carpenter around so closely that one day he gave me one of his old hammers (I still have the hammer) and he gave me a handful of nails and some flat pieces of wood.
When I started elementary school, I came home one day and told my mom I was going to be an architect. I was fortunate enough to go to a school with a curriculum that offered art as a requirement, and when I got to junior high, I started drawing again. In the Alamo Heights Independent School District, they had art all the way through high school and that’s where it really started to pick up. When I got to be a junior, the guidance counselor said that she thought that I should pursue either commercial art or architecture. She set up an appointment with Marmon Mok Architects here in San Antonio. And it was just by coincidence, that one of my classmates was Mr. Mok’s daughter. They gave me a tour of the office. They were really nice. I really liked the aspect of architects working with people, doing public projects.
That was 1970, when I graduated from high school. It was by coincidence that at that time the American Institute of Architects and the Ford Foundation developed their National Minority Architecture Scholarship Program. My guidance counselor, her name was Mrs. Flora Lightfoot, called The University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture and lo and behold she got Alan Taniguchi on the phone. She mentioned the scholarship to Alan, and of course, Alan was one of the advocates of the scholarship with Whitney Young. We drove to Austin. Alan met with us and talked to me and talked to Mrs. Lightfoot and gave us a tour around the school and encouraged us to submit this application. And so, sure enough we did. Mrs. Lightfoot helped my mother and I complete the application and I was fortunate enough to get one of them. I got to go to The University of Texas at Austin. I think in my freshman class there was like three or four black students out of approximately 200. I forget the exact number, but you could count us on your hand.
AS: What was the experience like being such a minority at the school in the ’70s? Was it intimidating? Was it welcoming?
EF: That part did not intimidate me, being a minority. But one of the reasons I got the scholarship was that my family simply did not have the money to send me to school. When I got there, some of my classmates had a legacy of architecture, their fathers, their uncles, somebody was an architect or engineer. They had whole sets of Rapidograph drawing pens. There was a system that we would use back then, to letter the titles on drawings, that was called a Leroy lettering system. And there were students that had whole Leroy sets. So here I am with two pens and some lead pencils from art in high school, trying to compete with these people that have all these tools. So that was that part of it.
The other part was that — I’m talking about the time range from ’70 to ’75 — even though there was a lot going on with the social and civil rights movements, generally, when the black students that I knew, when we were in history classes, and we would ask the history professors, “What did African American or black people do in architectural history?” We were generally told, “Nothing. They did nothing.” It was kind of frustrating, trying to figure out, what’s my specific references as a designer, or planner? And very little was said, in planning terms, about black neighborhoods, black communities — and that was a big time of urban renewal. The examples we saw were, you know, “We’re just gonna wipe out these big blocks of neighborhoods, we’re gonna use Le Corbusier’s plan for the perfect city, and it’s gonna work.” And that was somewhat demoralizing and intimidating.
AS: At UT you became interested in landscape architecture, and after graduating, you applied to a masters program at Harvard and were accepted. And it was at Harvard that you became interested in the preservation of African American sites. Is that correct?
EF: I think you’ve done some homework. At Harvard, I took a history class taught by J.B. Jackson, the renowned cultural landscape historian and author. His class was “The Built American Landscape Since 1865.” He talked about Native Americans, he talked about European Immigrants, he talked about every group that you could imagine, except African Americans. The only thing he mentioned in his class about African Americans was that they had been slaves and worked on some plantations, and possibly had helped some of the owners build some of the structures. When we had to write a paper, I said, “Professor Jackson, I’m from Texas and my grandparents are from East Texas, up in Nacogdoches County. My grandad helped build the local community church, and I know some other folks and friends that he had that were carpenters and builders. There must have been something that black people did. It may not have been classical architecture, but it’s something.” And so Jackson said, and I can still see it, he kind of leaned back in his chair, and he said, “You know, you have a point. Yes, you can write your paper on that.” And then he leaned forward and said, “If you take this project, you don’t quit. I don’t care what you’ve done on the exams, if you don’t turn this paper in, I’m not going to pass you.” He turned to one of the teaching assistants and he said, “Get Mr. Fly a stack pass to the rare books of the Widener Library.” And that was the door opener. I could get into the rare book stacks of the Widener and I could look at anything they had. That’s when I started to find these “one-liners” in 1870s, ’80s, ’90s publications. They would mention black towns or black communities. I started making a list and then piecing it together, working backwards that way. And that was the paper that I wrote for Jackson in the fall of ’75. And I passed the class, by the way.
In the fall of ’76, I’m in my second and final year, and the first week of class Jackson said he wanted to see me. I went back to his office, he told me that he had taken the paper with him and read it over the course of a year — read it, reread it — and he thought I should do additional work because, he said, “You’re really onto something. This is going to be important.” I don’t know how he had this vision, but he said this is going to be important. And so, I said, “What do you want me to do?” And he said, “Well, this fall I have a graduate seminar, I want you to do a presentation to my seminar before Thanksgiving.” And I said, “But Professor Jackson, I’m taking…” Aaron, when you’re there, when I was at Harvard, I worked more in two years than I worked in five years at UT. Okay? That fall, my design instructor was Peter Walker. And so, Peter, he puts your nose to the grindstone. And I said, “Professor Jackson, I’m taking Pete Walker’s design class, we gotta do this, we gotta do that.” He said, “Don’t worry, I’ll talk to him and I’ll talk to the chairman. Don’t worry.” And then he turns to the teaching assistant and he says, “Get Mr. Fly another stack pass to the rare books library.” So I had from September to the first week of November to put this presentation together and do this design work with Pete Walker and my other classes. But I did it, and I made the presentation to the design seminar, and Pete even showed up and listened. And from that point, my classmates at Harvard went home for Thanksgiving, and when they came back they started bringing me newspaper articles and clippings about black townsfolk from their part of the country. Jackson himself kept sending me material and information. That’s where I started this list and interpretation and analysis of these black communities.
AS: When you went out into the field to document and explore these communities and analyze the architecture, what did you find that was special or unique about them?
EF: I guess the first thing was the locations of the communities. Initially I did not expect to find black settlements in every state in the union, but I did. Some of them were satellites of larger communities, some of them were embedded enclaves, like there was a larger white community, but there was a pocket of African Americans. And of course, coming out of slavery, the white landowners wanted these African Americans close, so they could get to their homes to be cooks, butlers, maids, gardeners, chauffeurs, you know, labor for their enterprises and businesses. And then I found separate black communities, and those were really intriguing. I found out that the African American folks that bought and owned the land actually did the basic planning. That was really, really intriguing, like, how do these people know enough to lay out these communities and plan them? I started with 70 or 80 when I wrote the Harvard paper for John Jackson. I never expected to have a list that includes more than 1,300 Black settlements, villages, towns, resorts, neighborhoods, and enclaves.
AS: Were most of these communities founded shortly after the Civil War, or around then?
EF: From the Civil War on, but I did find a few others before. They were freedmen’s communities. But most of them after the Civil War.
The next question is, “Who built these structures?” I began to find the carpenters, and masons, and so on. A lot of the early structures were planned and designed in their minds, because these are not trained architects like I am. But from experience they knew the limits of beams, they know how many nails to put in the beams, what size they should be.
After I graduated from Harvard, I had one friend in the planning department, she went to work in Montgomery County, Maryland. Montgomery County decides that they want to do an inventory of black communities in Northeastern Montgomery County. I’m the only black landscape architect she knows so she called me and said, “Would you be interested in doing a consultation in Montgomery County and help us identify these black communities?” I said, “Sure.” And they offered to pay for the service!
By doing that project, I started to build my methodology that incorporates oral history, field research, and archival research. I also began to learn more about African American attitudes toward the natural environment. You talk to the residents that have some knowledge, they have a legacy in the community, and a land-based culture. A lot of them have photographs of buildings that their uncle or grandfather built. Photographs of schools that their uncles and aunts went to. And so that gives you points of reference to start researching the buildings and land. The interesting part for me was how sound many of these vernacular structures were and how sustainable their lifestyles were on the land. Either by experience or intuition, they knew how to organize the structure and the landscape.
AS: Since you’ve undertaken this project you’ve brought so much to light, but there still seems to be a lack of information out there on vernacular black architecture.
EF: Oh yeah. When they use the term underrepresented? I mean, it’s exponentially underrepresented. There’s a huge amount of work that’s left to be done. It’s really critical and important to encourage anybody to look into this. There are discoveries every day. In your homework, you might have seen some articles about African American cemeteries around the country that have been recently rediscovered. Those are some of the last physical remnants of these communities. There is a proposed federal resolution, H.R. 1179, to start an index of historic African American cemeteries, but it doesn’t touch all the buildings, the churches, the schools, the African American businesses.
AS: I’m thinking of the discovery recently in Sugarland of a mass grave of black prisoners who were part of a convict leasing program. The city of Sugarland doesn’t want to acknowledge it, doesn’t want to put up a monument for it. So many of these early African American sites are so tied to the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, it seems like a history that white people want to forget and move beyond. But how can you heal and how can you improve that wound without facing it?
EF: That’s my approach as well. In the last three or four years — I feel honored and flattered — I’ve had some white families here in San Antonio come forward and say exactly what you’ve just said. “I think it’s time to face this.” And they’ve shared their records of slavery. They acknowledge that the slaves and their family worked together. In one case, they actually went to church together. And they feel like it’s time, way past time, for the healing to start.
AS: Let’s talk a little bit about the lack of representation of African Americans in the profession of architecture, landscape architecture, and preservation. Do you see a solution for this issue?
EF: Well, this is kind of above my pay grade, but it’s such a huge problem. When I started at UT in 1970, people actually said to me, “Why do you want to do that? There’s no black people in architecture. What good is that gonna do?” Some people said, “You should go into law. We need more black lawyers.” I felt that, like when I went to that introductory tour at Marmon Mok’s office, and they’re working on public projects that affect people. I felt like I could make a contribution that way.
When I graduated and started working for myself, I talked to my African American classmates. In a lot of the firms, we were not allowed, even if we initiated or originated a design, we were not actually allowed to present the design to a white client. As I began to work for myself more, in the ’80s, most of the white firms here in San Antonio would only talk to me about being the minority participant on a public project, for two percent. They would never talk to me about joint venturing or collaborating, you know, teaming up in an equal setting.
Because I was traveling, I would meet some pretty prestigious firms. I got to meet the Johnson, Johnson, and Roy firm from Michigan. I actually got to meet Bill Johnson, and Carl, and Clarence Roy before they passed away. We sat down and had discussions, and they asked me, “What do you do?” And I explained, and they said, “We like the way you think. You’ve got represented work. We’d be interested to work with you.” And so, when they got the opportunity to have some projects in San Antonio they called me directly. The local firms couldn’t figure out, how did I get to know Johnson, Johnson, and Roy? And why did Johnson, Johnson, and Roy contact me directly? Well, it’s because I had my own professional relationship with them.
I still think there’s a lot of work to do. I taught site planning for the architecture students at UT Austin for five years and I always included a little segment about African American settlements and communities and neighborhoods, so they would understand there’s more culture, more diversity in community planning than what we typically acknowledge. And needless to say, again this was late ’70s early ’80s, there was quite a bit of pushback. The white students would say, “Why do we need to learn this?”
And so, here we are now, in 2020, the issue is even bigger. But to go back to your question, absolutely, there is a major issue in the profession. There’s definitely work to be done. The way we teach, the way we work with our interns, the experience and exposure we get, and even the professional respect we give to women and people of color. I just don’t think that there’s enough sincere effort from a lot of the white professionals to reach out and collaborate and try to understand. It’s just obvious to me that there are contributions that African American architects, or planners and landscape architects have to make.
With landscape architecture, it’s even another issue because, when I started, people in the African American community would say to me, “You’re just talking about farming. We worked our way off of the farms as slaves. We want to be in the corporate offices, we want to be in the corner offices, etcetera. And you’re still out there, digging at the dirt.” It’s hard to get them to understand that the discipline of landscape architecture affects community planning, and planning decisions, all the way down to individual sites. So that has even made it more challenging.