Jewish World Review Nov. 22,1999 /13 Kislev, 5760
under the rug
RECENTLY I WAS SURPRISED to learn of a highly successful black architect
whose career began back in the 1920s and of a black engineer and inventor
from even further back, in the 1870s. With all the attention being given to
various blacks during "Black History Month" and other such celebrations, it
seemed strange to me that so little attention had been paid to these two
There has also been a remarkable lack of interest in some academically
outstanding black schools, despite much political hand-wringing over the
problems of black education. Put bluntly, some kinds of success seem to be
swept under the rug, while other minor figures are inflated for the sake of
Let us begin with Paul Williams, a black man who became an architect in
southern California in the 1920s, despite warnings from others that there
was no market for a black architect. Few of his own people had the money to
hire an architect and whites would prefer to hire a white architect. The
1920s were, after all, one of the periods of the resurgence of the Ku Klux
Klan and its spread outside the South. Racism was big.
Nevertheless, Paul Williams studied to become an architect. His first job
offers were so meager that he agreed to become an office boy at an
architectural firm -- with no salary, working just to get experience. Yet,
after he started working, the company decided to pay him, after all.
Obviously, he must have impressed somebody.
Over the decades that followed, Williams impressed many people. Wealthy
white businessmen began having him design both their businesses and their
homes. So did movie stars like Cary Grant, Frank Sinatra, and Lucille Ball
and Desi Arnaz. He also designed churches and other structures, and was part
of the team of architects who designed the modernistic theme building at the
Los Angeles International Airport.
An even more remarkable black man was Elijah McCoy, born in 1844, the son
of escaped slaves. He lived in Canada but somehow made his way to Scotland,
where he studied engineering. After returning to North America, McCoy
invented a device which allowed machines to be oiled automatically while
still running. Before, machinery either had to be shut down to be
lubricated -- which was costly in terms of lost production -- or boys had to
risk injury by oiling by hand while the machines were moving.
McCoy's invention was so successful that it had many imitators. None was as
good, however, and buyers began to insist on getting "the real McCoy" --
adding a new idiom to the language.
Why are these men much less celebrated than other blacks whose
achievements were not as great?
What they did was an individual achievement and owed nothing to the civil
rights movements or other political activity. More than that, they cast
doubt on the whole vision of blacks as being held back solely by white
racism and discrimination. Both men encountered prejudice and
discrimination, but it didn't stop them.
Much the same story could be told of various black schools which maintained
high academic standards, even during the era of Jim Crow, when separate was
seldom equal and very few of the supposed "prerequisites" of good education
were available. Here again was an achievement that did not follow the script
of black protests or other appeals to whites.
Paul Williams was candid enough to say that cultural deficiencies within
the black community played a role in the economic and social lags of blacks.
In other words, white racism was not the be-all and end-all excuse. Other
independent black achievements suggest the same thing. That may be why they
are swept under the rug, lest the great ideological bubble burst.
A black attorney once told me that, when he first entered law school, the
black students there told him that a certain professor never gave blacks a
higher grade than C. But this particular student decided that he just had to
have the course that this professor taught and so he took his chances. After
he received a grade of B+ he was surprised to find other black students
being resentful toward him. He too had burst the bubble.
Egos, careers and massive government programs have all been based on a
certain vision of race. Anything which threatens that vision is likely to be
ignored or resented. But we need success and the lessons taught by success
more than we need any political
JWR contributor Thomas Sowell, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, is author, most recently, of The Quest for Cosmic Justice.
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©1999, Creators Syndicate