“If I allow the fact that I am a Negro to checkmate my will to do, now, I will inevitablity form the habit of being defeated.”
February in Black History Month. It is important to me to acknowledge this observance here on Dreams Reality Bliss.
The first two Creative’s Spotlights have focused on two pioneers in the interior architecture and design world. Today, I am shining the light on another pioneer, Paul Revere Williams, the first black member of the American Institute of Architects and its first black Fellow.
Williams is a trailblazer not only in his profession, but he serves as a model for life. His story begins in Los Angeles, California in 1894 where he was born as a second son to two Tennessean parents, Lila and Chester Williams. At the age of two, Williams’s father died and his mother would also die two short years thereafter. Orphaned and alone, Williams and his brother were subsequently placed into different foster homes – the final link to his biological family was severed.
Despite Williams’s unfortunate start at life, he was fortunate to have been placed with a foster mother who had an extremely invaluable influence on his development. She focused on his education and the cultivation of his creative talent. She often told Williams that he was bright and that he could do anything that he wanted. She encouraged his dreams, one in particular – the dream of designing homes for families. Maybe this dream was born in spite, and because of him having lost his family and home at such a young age.
During his grade school years, Williams often found himself alone, different, or in the midst of adversity. He was the only black student in his elementary school. Things somewhat improved in high school as Los Angeles had become more diverse. He was a part of an ethnic and racial mix but his awareness of his differences and challenges did not end there. Williams had a teacher who discouraged his interest in the architecture profession and warned him that it was very impractical. He was warned that “his people” would not be able to afford him and would not be able to provide him with enough work. He was told that he would face a lot of difficulty being hired by white clients.
Despite this warning, Williams preserved. Williams would go on to design school and become a certified architect; the first certified black architect west of the Mississippi. Williams designed thousands of private homes, as well as commercial and institutional buildings throughout the country. A large concentration of his work can be found in Southern California and Nevada.
Moreover, that teacher, who discouraged him many years earlier, was proven very wrong – he found work and it was not limited to his race. Williams designed homes for many of Hollywood’s elite including, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Cary Grant, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and even Frank Sinatra, just to name a few. As a personal favor to his friend Danny Thomas, founder of St. Jude Children’s Hospital, Williams designed St. Jude hospital in Memphis free of charge. He often gave his time and talent freely to projects that he truly believed in (e.g. helping the black community in Southern California and supporting the welfare, health, and safety of young people).
Paul R. Williams died in 1980 at the age 85. Over his 50-year career, Williams’s contribution to the architectural design community was immeasurable – he earned the admiration and respect of many of his contemporaries. His life story is a testament to creating your own path and preserving despite the odds. When he lost his family and home at a young age, Williams reframed that as an opportunity to create homes for others. When others told him he “couldn’t” because he was black – Williams taught himself how to draw upside down so that his white clients would not be uncomfortable sitting beside him. Yes, there were many doors locked to him because of his race, but he found doors that would open and made the absolute best career out of them that he could.
Learning of his story has been an inspiration for me. As I have charted along my path in life, I too have faced adversity because of my family of origin, my race, my gender, and my “lack of pedigree.” I am sure as you read this, you too can recall challenges that you have faced in your life. We are all human and are not immune to adversity. Sometimes we knock on doors that will not open for us; we pursue paths that are more difficult than some of our other options. I think Paul R. Williams can inspire each of us to drown out all of those naysayers that come along (not only those mean-spirited haters but even those who may genuinely mean us well) and continue on with the purpose that we have found in our heart for ourselves.
Has Paul R. Williams’s testament given you encouragement to solider on in a difficult area of your life? What inspirations have you found helpful when you faced adversity? Let me hear all about it below!
Sending you dreamy bliss,