As Dr. Carter G. Woodson, the founder of Black History Month, once said, “Those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history.” Black History Month highlights marginalized individuals who have made an impact on American society. Many of these people diligently worked in obscurity and their achievements have gone unnoticed and/or unacknowledged. While someone like Benjamin Banneker, for example, is well-known and discussed in history courses, individuals such as architect Julian F. Abele are fairly unknown. Although Abele mostly worked behind the scenes, his architectural designs are permanent fixtures on the Duke University campus. He designed several buildings for the university, and it wasn’t until the mid-1980s that his accomplishments were recognized by the public.
Abele grew up in Philadelphia in the late 19th century and was descended from a prestigious African American lineage. His mother was a milliner, and his father served in the Union Army during the Civil War and worked for the U.S. Treasury Customs House. His maternal grandfather, Robert Jones, was the founder of Philadelphia’s Lombard Street Central Presbyterian Church. Abele was also a descendant of Reverend Absalom Jones, the founder of the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, and the co-founder of the Free African Society, the first African American mutual aid organization.
Fittingly, Abele was a dedicated scholar with a strong desire for learning. He graduated from the Institute for Colored Youth, now known as Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, which was the first institution of higher learning for African Americans. During his graduation, Abele delivered the commencement speech titled, “The Role of Art in Negro Life.” Abele’s passion for architecture and education motivated him to excel in all of his endeavors. Despite growing up in a generation barely removed from slavery, he was determined to establish a prosperous legacy.
In 1902, Abele became the first ever black graduate of the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Architecture. As a senior, he served on the student yearbook committee and as the president of the Architectural Society. To expand his horizons, Abele traveled to France where he learned about Beaux Arts (beautiful arts), a style of architecture that features elements such as a symmetrical façade, large arches, columns, triangular pediments, and balustrades. Abele became so enamored of this style that he incorporated it into many of his own architectural designs. When he returned to Philadelphia, Abele began working under architect Horace Trumbauer at the Horace Trumbauer Company.
While working for the Horace Trumbauer Company, Abele served as the chief designer and contributed to the planning of over 400 buildings including the Widener Memorial Library at Harvard University, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Free Library of Philadelphia, and the majority of the West Campus at Duke University. As an architect, Abele was innovative and willing to perfect his craft. When he was tasked to design the Philadelphia Art Museum, he traveled to Greece in order to study classic Greek buildings. He subsequently utilized the column styles of Greek temples as well as the color of the stones in his design for the Philadelphia Art Museum.
In spite of his accomplishments, Abele still had to face the harsh reality of racism in America. Due to fears of backlash and potentially jeopardizing his career, Abele did not sign his name to the architectural designs he completed for the Horace Trumbauer Company until after Trumbauer passed away. While he received little recognition for his work during his lifetime, Abele was a very shrewd operator. As he once stated, “The lines are all Mr. Trumbauer’s, but the shadows are all mine.” Abele was eventually elected to the American Institute of Architects in 1942, but it wasn’t until decades after his death in 1950 that he began to be widely recognized for his contributions.
In 1986, students at Duke University protested against apartheid and held a divestment rally. At the time, Duke University had holdings in companies that supported apartheid in South Africa. One of the most outspoken protesters was Susan Cook, who is also Abele’s great-grandniece. Following in her great-granduncle’s footsteps, Cook also studied architecture and later became an architectural engineer. As a sophomore during the protests, she wrote a letter to the school newspaper extolling the contributions of Abele and exposing the hypocrisy of Duke University. As a black architect who designed many of the buildings at Duke, Abele, ironically, could not have attended the university at any point during his lifetime because of the United States’ version of apartheid: Jim Crow. Subsequently, Duke officials voted in favor of divestment and later commissioned a portrait of Abele to be displayed in the foyer of the Allen Building. This was the first portrait of an African American to ever be displayed at Duke University, and it continues to serve as a reminder of Abele’s achievements as an architect. The Black Graduate and Professional Student Association (BGPSA) at Duke University has also worked diligently to commemorate the legacy of Abele. Since 1990, the BGPSA has held the annual Julian Abele Awards, which honors the achievements of black community members and their supporters.
Julian F. Abele was a man with a vision and a trailblazer in the field of architecture. Rather than succumbing to negative preconceived notions about African Americans, he took it upon himself to pursue his life’s passion. Even though most of his life was spent working in relative anonymity, his legacy is undeniable. He serves as a reminder that dreams aren’t unattainable and that anyone can achieve success if they apply themselves and maintain a strong resolve.