I speak at a lot of schools across the country, and I’ve encountered a trend that drives me freakin’ nuts. I always ask students the following question:
“How many of you want to be a professional athlete or a rapper?”
At inner-city, mostly African American schools, nearly every hand shoots up. When I ask the same question in a white suburban school, maybe 10 percent of hands are raised. I speak to a lot of schools, and this happens without fail.
I tell black kids all the time, “You ain’t gonna be me.” Even if you’re any good on the court, the odds are stacked against you. But I can tell from the blank way they look back at me: They’re putting all their eggs in this totally unlikely basket. But I get why. Young black kids get from the media an unrealistic picture of African American success. Athletes and rappers, with Denzel and Oprah thrown in.
So to mark Black History Month here at The Citizen, I’m going to introduce you every day to my Philadelphia Black History Month All-Stars. Many of them didn’t make it into the history books or even the newspapers of their time. But their stories are inspiring and worth knowing.
Julian Francis Abele
Julian Francis Abele
(April 30, 1881 – April 23, 1950)
Julian Francis Abele was the first black graduate of Penn’s architecture school in 1902 and spent most of his career as chief architect of the famed firm of Horace Trumbauer. Abele is said to have designed over 400 buildings, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Free Library of Philadelphia, the Land Title Building, Harvard University’s Widener Memorial Library and much of Duke University’s campus. Still, true to the times he lived in, Abele was not credited for most of his work until after his death; he was not allowed in Penn’s dorms or cafeterias as a student; and he was not admitted into the American Institute of Architects until 1942. According to his family, Abele refused to visit the buildings he designed at Duke because “he did not wish to experience the harsh segregated ‘Jim Crow’ laws of the South.”
- University of Pennsylvania B.A. in Architecture, 1902
- Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Certificate of Completion in Architectural Design 1903
- École des Beaux-Arts (Abele is said by his descendants to have attended the French university, although there is no record of his enrollment)
- First African American student to graduate from the Department of Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania
- Chief designer of 400 buildings, including Philadelphia Museum of Art
- Known for being immaculately dressed—even wearing a suit while on the boardwalk
- In 1989, a painting of Abele in the Duke University administration building was the first African American portrait at the school
Abele famously noted his role in Trumbauer’s designs by saying, “the lines are all Mr. Trumbauer’s, but the shadows are all mine”—a statement that may have been as much about the role his race played in his work as it did about the architecture.