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Progress by Design

Beverly L. Greene framed a future for architects like her

Illustration by John Jay Cabuay

I knew at a young age that I wanted to change the world. What I didn’t know was how to go about doing it or even who I was to think that I could change the world. I did know that I was drawn to architecture. Maybe that would be my purpose, the mode by which I would change the world.

But less than 100 years ago, I couldn’t have pursued that purpose.

Beverly L. Greene needed to come along first. In 1942, she became the first known female African American licensed architect in the U.S. In a field dominated by white men, she stayed true to herself and pursued a path into the unknown.

She earned a degree in architectural engineering, overcame preconceived notions—even being forced to move to New York due to a lack of opportunities for a Black female architect in Chicago—and persisted.

“I wish that young [Black] women would think about this field,” she said in an interview. “I wish some others would try it.”

I answered that rallying call by enrolling as an architecture student at Texas Tech University in 2021, knowing full well that despite the many years that have passed since Greene’s historic achievements, the playing field is still not level.

While history was made in 2020 as the number of licensed female Black architects reached 500, the national registrar reported that just 0.5% of licensed architects were Black women. Not even 1% of architects look like me.

But if Greene could achieve all that she did—including working on the UNESCO headquarters in Paris—during segregation and a world war, then the only limitations on the legacy I create are me.

It’s possible that pursuing architecture will have no effect on a global scale, and it’s possible that I’ll face criticism and setbacks. It’s even highly likely that I will fail in this field, which has a higher dropout rate than engineering and medicine.

If learning about Greene taught me anything, it’s that success in life is oftentimes transient and short-lived, but your effect on others—your creations, all those beautiful gifts—those outlive you.

So if someone asked me today what I want my life or my career to look like, I won’t tell them that I want to help people in an unconventional but impactful way.

I won’t tell them that I want to create bonds through and with the built environment. I won’t even tell them that I want to design a world in which everyone has access to safe, sustainable and affordable shelter.

Instead I’ll tell them this: I want to be remembered like Beverly L. Greene because I helped shape the future for those who came after me.