RECENTLY I WAS SURPRISED to learn of a highly successful black architect whose career began back in the 1920s and of a black engineer and inventor from even further back, in the 1870s. With all the attention being given to various blacks during "Black History Month" and other such celebrations, it seemed strange to me that so little attention had been paid to these two men.
There has also been a remarkable lack of interest in some academically outstanding black schools, despite much political hand-wringing over the problems of black education. Put bluntly, some kinds of success seem to be swept under the rug, while other minor figures are inflated for the sake of racial breast-beating.
Let us begin with Paul Williams, a black man who became an architect in southern California in the 1920s, despite warnings from others that there was no market for a black architect. Few of his own people had the money to hire an architect and whites would prefer to hire a white architect. The 1920s were, after all, one of the periods of the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan and its spread outside the South. Racism was big.
Nevertheless, Paul Williams studied to become an architect. His first job offers were so meager that he agreed to become an office boy at an architectural firm—with no salary, working just to get experience. Yet, after he started working, the company decided to pay him, after all. Obviously, he must have impressed somebody.
Over the decades that followed, Williams impressed many people. Wealthy white businessmen began having him design both their businesses and their homes. So did movie stars like Cary Grant, Frank Sinatra, and Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. He also designed churches and other structures, and was part of the team of architects who designed the modernistic theme building at the Los Angeles International Airport.
An even more remarkable black man was Elijah McCoy, born in 1844, the son of escaped slaves. He lived in Canada but somehow made his way to Scotland, where he studied engineering. After returning to North America, McCoy invented a device which allowed machines to be oiled automatically while still running. Before, machinery either had to be shut down to be lubricated—which was costly in terms of lost production—or boys had to risk injury by oiling by hand while the machines were moving.
McCoy's invention was so successful that it had many imitators. None was as good, however, and buyers began to insist on getting "the real McCoy"—adding a new idiom to the language.
Why are these men much less celebrated than other blacks whose achievements were not as great?
What they did was an individual achievement and owed nothing to the civil-rights movements or other political activity. More than that, they cast doubt on the whole vision of blacks as being held back solely by white racism and discrimination. Both men encountered prejudice and discrimination, but it didn't stop them.
Much the same story could be told of various black schools which maintained high academic standards, even during the era of Jim Crow, when separate was seldom equal and very few of the supposed "prerequisites" of good education were available. Here again was an achievement that did not follow the script of black protests or other appeals to whites.
Paul Williams was candid enough to say that cultural deficiencies within the black community played a role in the economic and social lags of blacks. In other words, white racism was not the be-all and end-all excuse. Other independent black achievements suggest the same thing. That may be why they are swept under the rug, lest the great ideological bubble burst.
A black attorney once told me that, when he first entered law school, the black students there told him that a certain professor never gave blacks a higher grade than C. But this particular student decided that he just had to have the course that this professor taught and so he took his chances. After he received a grade of B+ he was surprised to find other black students being resentful toward him. He too had burst the bubble.
Egos, careers, and massive government programs have all been based on a certain vision of race. Anything which threatens that vision is likely to be ignored or resented. But we need success and the lessons taught by success more than we need any political vision.