Pioneering Architects: Ethel Bailey Furman

1928 Negro Contractors’ Conference

Fewer than one in five new architects identify as racial or ethnic minorities, and just about two in five are women, according to the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards. As we work to achieve a future of greater equity, diversity, and inclusion in the profession, we can learn important lessons in reckoning with the past.  The Pioneering Architects series celebrates the legacy of architects who overcame unimaginable obstacles. In sharing their stories, we aim to pay overdue tribute to their talents, honor their courage, and learn from their experiences.

A single photograph is perhaps the only evidence of the 1928 Negro Contractors’ Conference held at Hampton University. It depicts a group of 35 builders and tradespeople hailing from historically Black neighborhoods in a handful of Virginia cities like Norfolk, Petersburg, Richmond, and Virginia Beach.

At the center of the photograph is Ethel Bailey Furman (1893-1976), the first Black woman to practice architecture in the Commonwealth of Virginia, and the only woman to attend the conference.

Ethel Bailey Furman (1893-1976) was the first Black woman to practice architecture in Virginia.

Information about the people in the photograph may be scant, but the image speaks volumes about the experiences of not only Ethel Bailey Furman but also of other would-be architects of color.

Dreck Spurlock Wilson, author of African American Architects: A Biographical Dictionary, 1865-1945, explains that skilled construction work was a common career alternative for African Americans with architecture skills. “There were so many barriers to becoming a licensed architect that many African Americans, although they had drawing skills and actually prepared drawings, they didn’t have a license [so] they would call themselves a contractor.”

It was Furman’s own father’s career as a contractor that paved the way for her own career. As one of the earliest licensed Black contractors in Richmond, Madison J. Bailey was a pioneer in his own right. “She got started following her father around to construction sites,” Wilson said. “Her father was a very successful and very prominent contractor in Richmond, who needed her drawing ability as he got larger and larger construction projects that were going to require drawings, even if they didn’t need a permit drawing.”

She went on to receive architectural training through a private tutor and apprenticed in a New York office around 1915. Private tutoring was an important educational path for women, if they or their families could afford it, to circumvent gender discrimination, notes the architectural historian Susan Gergen Horner.

Furman’s time in New York when she was 22 helped her refine her knowledge of craft, material, and worksite logistics gleaned from her father. Furman returned to Richmond and began her own career in 1921. While raising three children, she worked with her father out of the house, still standing, he built in Richmond’s Church Hill neighborhood. By the time she arrived at the Hampton conference, Furman had already designed several of her father’s residential commissions.

Furman’s strong ties to her community were integral to her career. “Her family was among the Black elite in Richmond, so she was a part of that society,” Wilson noted. “When she hung out her shingle, she was able to benefit from her society ties to Black Richmond.” One association that “really helped her career” was her close friendship and business relationship with businesswoman Maggie Walker. Walker chartered St. Luke Penny Savings Bank in Richmond and served as its president, making her the first African American woman in the U.S. to serve as president of a bank.

Although we don’t know much about the business association between these two remarkable women, there is reason to believe it was a consequential one, for them and for their community. St. Luke’s is remembered as “a powerful representation of Black self-help in the segregated South,” and Walker was committed to using her platform to fight racial injustice and champion women, likely including Ethel Bailey Furman. “Because the bank made loans to the Black community, I’m sure there was a lot of back and forth between Ethel and the bank on loans to go forward with construction projects,” Wilson commented.

The alliance and mutual support would have been particularly valuable given the challenges both women faced in the Jim Crow era. According to a biography published by Virginia Changemakers, “Furman surmounted the discrimination she faced as a Black woman, often by submitting her building plans to local administrators through the male contractors with whom she worked.”

Despite these challenges and a busy career, Furman never stopped pursuing opportunities to advance her training and success. Between 1944 and 1946, when she was in her early 50s, Furman pursued coursework at the Chicago Technical College to finally obtain certification in architecture.

All told, Ethel Bailey Furman designed around 200 buildings, including residences and churches.

Furman’s ecclesiastical portfolio includes Fair Oak Baptist Church in Richmond, St. James Baptist Church in Goochland County to the west of Richmond, and Mount Nebo Baptist Church in New Kent County to the east. Furman’s 1961 International Style addition to Richmond’s Greek Revival Fourth Baptist Church sits on the National Register of Historic Places. The proportion, use of symbolism, and detail employed by Furman blends two incommensurate architectural styles into an obvious and enduring harmony.

Some traces of Furman’s life and career have been celebrated through digital exhibitions and retrospectives by the Library of Virginia, Virginia Humanities, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and Docomomo. What’s left of her files have been preserved by the Library of Virginia, which holds archives consisting of about two dozen Furman drawings, as well as photographs and the odd invoice as evidence of her business transactions.

Yet the destruction of what are thought to be her earliest residential projects in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s have obscured her contributions to architecture, including the Richmond home she designed for Robert Wilder – the childhood home of former Governor Douglas Wilder, the first African American to serve as governor of a U.S. state since Reconstruction.

Along with another pioneering Black architect, Charles Thaddeus Russell, Furman contributed to the development of Church Hill, one of the most important and thriving middle-class Black neighborhoods in the south—home to “clerks, managers, salesmen, book-keepers, laborers, painters, bricklayers, hucksters, drivers, printers, box and trunk makers and machinists,” as noted by the historian Kimberly Chen in Church Hill’s National Register nomination.

Furman was a pillar of Black life in Richmond, receiving the Walter Manning Citizenship Award in 1954. Not quite a decade after Furman’s death, the park at 818 N. 29th Street in Church Hill was named in her honor. We also know she was integral to the physical development of Richmond neighborhoods, both under guise of her father’s contracting firm and later as an architectural designer. Yet most of what was realized of her 200 commissions have been razed, and there are still some questions around authorship of certain designs since historians know she felt compelled to register drawings in the names of male colleagues.

Even so, there is more than enough documentation to secure her place in history. So why has she so often been overlooked? As Wilson puts it: “She was the first Black female architect in the Commonwealth of Virginia, yet none of the leading architectural history books about Virginia include her name. I think that she is a double victim of both sexism and racism.”

Like so many other pioneering architects, her story challenges us to look beyond received history and seek out hidden histories. Architects and editors like Dreck Spurlock Wilson in his African American Architects: A Biographical Dictionary, 1865-1945, and Pascale Sablan, FAIA, in her Great Designers Library are beacons in this larger project to reveal the hidden and willfully ignored contributions of Black architects. But if we only passively recognize them and don’t actively articulate them within the continuum of American architecture and its global histories, we risk losing touch with the lived experiences and architectural contributions of individuals who shaped the Black middle class and left lasting impacts on cities and towns.

Image credits

1928 Negro Contractors’ Conference

Ethel Bailey Furman Papers, Library of Virginia

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