Honoring Black Trailblazers in the AEC industry

I want to thank Mead & Hunt’s Employee Resource Group’s (ERG) Ethnic Minorities Group for all helping to create this blog. Just like our communities, working together as a group allowed us to create something better than any of us could have alone.

To celebrate Black History Month, we want to remember just a few of the many influential Black Americans whose extensive contributions bettered our communities, industry, and country—often overcoming significant barriers to do so.

blackpast.org, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Norma Sklarek, Architect (1926 – 2012)

Norma Sklarek has been called the “Rosa Parks of architecture” for her pioneering achievements and leadership in the profession. The daughter of immigrants from Trinidad, Sklarek grew up in Harlem and Brooklyn and graduated from the School of Architecture at Columbia University in 1950. She was rejected by 19 firms after graduation, and in 1954 took the architecture licensing exam and became the first licensed Black woman architect in the state of New York. In 1955 she was hired by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, and in 1960 she relocated to Los Angeles where she became the first Black woman licensed as an architect in California. Like many women architects in corporate firms, Sklarek served as a project manager rather than a design architect for much of her career despite having the technical skills and knowledge to do so. However, she did go on to become the first Black woman to co-own an architectural firm, Siegel Sklarek Diamond, and the first Black woman elected as a Fellow of the AIA. Notable projects she oversaw the design and construction of include the Commons-Courthouse Center in Columbus, IN (1973), Pacific Design Center in LA (1978), Terminal One at LAX, and the Mall of America (1992). She also served as design architect alongside Cesar Pelli for the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo (1976).

Dr. Walt Braithwaite, Boeing Engineer (1945 – Present)

Walt Braithwaite revolutionized the way airplanes are designed and manufactured. Born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1945, he graduated from Chicago’s American Institute of Engineering and Technology with a degree in engineering in 1965. Just one year later, he joined Boeing’s Fabrication Division as a tool engineer and worked his way up to senior engineer just 10 years later. Prior to the 1970s, the aerospace industry developed new airplane models using manual drafting techniques and inefficient mock-up processes. Braithwaite introduced CAD/CAM Integrated Information Network (CIIN) to Boeing, which enabled seamless collaboration between different manufacturers and changed the way airplanes are designed and produced. For the first time, airplanes could be designed entirely on a computer! In 1990, the Boeing 777 became the first commercial plane designed 100 percent by computer and ushered in a new era in the aviation industry. Later airplane models like the 787 Dreamliner and 737 Max also benefited from Braithwaite’s innovative approach to designing airplanes.

Katherine Johnson
NASA; restored by Adam Cuerden, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Katherine Johnson, NASA Mathematician (1918 – 2020)

NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama in 2015.

Katherine Johnson was a pioneer in many ways: she was an early employee of NASA (and even worked at the agency that predated it) and a Black woman working in a field hugely dominated by white men. She was also a pioneer in that her work helped put humans in space and return them safely home to Earth.

Before rising to pop-culture fame with the book and movie Hidden Figures or being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Johnson created and calculated some extremely important equations to make America’s adventures in spaceflight successful. As Bill Barry, NASA’s chief historian, told the Washington Post in an obituary: “If we go back to the moon, or to Mars, we’ll be using her math.”

Alan Emtage, Search Engine Inventor (1964 – Present)

Meet Alan Emtage, the Black technologist who invented ARCHIE, the first internet search engine.

At a time when “googling” has become the generic term for conducting an internet search, it can be hard to remember that search had a long history before Google came along. But it’s worth revisiting that past during Black History Month, because the pre-Google era saw one of the most momentous Black contributions to the development of the internet: the invention of internet search itself, by Alan Emtage. Alan invented the world’s first search engine, but he didn’t earn a single cent from his groundbreaking invention. “I wrote a piece of code that gave birth to a multibillion-dollar industry,” he tells in an exclusive video interview. “I didn’t make any money off of it, but I wouldn’t change anything.”

When Alan Emtage worked as a systems administrator for the School of Computer Science at McGill University, he decided to create a program that would automate the time-consuming process of finding software for teachers and students. He named the program “Archie,” as a derivative of the word “archive” (without the “v”). Developed in 1990, his program was the world’s first search engine, or what Emtage calls the “great-great-grandfather of Google and all those other search engines.”

Chris Le

About the Author

The traditional path has never been the one taken by Chris Le. “I believe in giving back,” he says. “I have a passion for people. It is important to give communities designs they can be proud of, and will serve their needs for years to come.” Chris strives to involve the local community in his design work, incorporating elements that can be reused in other buildings to create truly valuable designs.

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