Pioneering African-American Architect
L. Quincy Jackson
February 25, 2022
Maya Robinson for Robi4
Michael D. Robinson, AIA, NCARB, NOMA and Carolyn D. Robinson, NOMA
Leon Quincy Jackson, a pioneering architect noted for historic works in the modern style, was born on January 9, 1926 in Wewoka, Oklahoma, approximately 60 miles southeast of Oklahoma City. According to a profile written by architectural historian James Gabbert for the first edition of African American Architects: A Biographical Dictionary, 1865–1945, Jackson was born to Roxie Ann Jackson, a high school principal of Seminole and African descent who owned a 200-acre farm in Wewoka,1 an early settlement founded in January 1849 by freedman John Horse and a group of Black Seminoles. Jackson’s natural father left the family soon after his birth and he was subsequently raised by his mother as an only child. He eventually gained a stepfather in Lonnie Galimore, “a pharmacy graduate of Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee,”2 who his mother met some time later.
As the child of a Black Oklahoma oil family, the young Jackson grew up in relative esteem due in large part to royalties from the oil deposits located on his mother’s farm. Profits from the farm’s oil derricks—of which there were a handful by 1949—paid for the construction of a 20-room home, as well as Jackson’s nanny.3
Jackson attended Wewoka Public School For Negroes and Indians as a child, graduating at the age of 16 in 1942.4 Following his graduation, he enrolled at Wilberforce University—a historically black university in Wilberforce, Ohio affiliated with the African Methodist Episcopal church and the school of choice for Black Oklahoma oil families,5 seeing as it was the first college to be owned and operated by African-Americans.6
After studying at Wilberforce for two years and declaring a major in arts and sciences, Jackson decided to transfer to the Iowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts (now Iowa State University of Science and Technology) in order to study architecture.7 However, due to the harsh winter climate in Ames, Jackson ended up leaving Iowa State at the end of the academic year in 1945, transferring instead to the Kansas State College of Agriculture and Applied Science (now Kansas State University), where he settled into its much-reputed School of Architecture.8
Color lithograph print (ca. 1850–1860) of Wilberforce University in Xenia, Ohio. Jackson began his undergraduate career at the university in January 1943. Photo via Library of Congress/Public domain.
Jackson studied at Kansas State until 1947, when he paused his coursework to teach architecture at Prairie View Agricultural and Mechanical College for the Benefit of Colored Youth (now Prairie View A&M University), after being personally recruited by Claude L. Wilson, Dean of Engineering at Prairie View.9 Following his relocation to Texas, Jackson remained at the institution for two years, no doubt gaining experience that would later inform a transformative tenure at the Tennessee Agricultural & Industrial State College (now Tennessee State University) in Nashville, TN. In addition to gaining teaching experience, it is during this period that the 21-year-old Jackson also met and married his first wife, Savannah Marie Vaughn, a sophomore from Hutchinson, Kansas studying dance and gymnastics.10
Jackson returned to Kansas State in 1949 to complete the requirements for his bachelor’s degree, earning his Bachelor of Science in Architecture that same year, along with his license from the Kansas State Registration and Examination Board of Architects, as was custom for architecture graduates of the state college.11 He remained at his alma mater until January 27, 1950, when his Master of Science in Architecture was conferred.12
Current view of Seaton Hall and Seaton Court, two notable landmarks of the College of Architecture, Planning, and Design at Kansas State University. Jackson completed his undergraduate career on the Manhattan, Kansas campus, where he also earned his first master’s degree. Photo by Timothy Hursley/BNIM.
With his formative background cemented, Jackson moved with his wife to Oklahoma City, Oklahoma where he opened a private practice and worked part-time for the Oklahoma City Board of Education.1 The office for his solo practice, located on Second Street in Deep Deuce—an historic African-American business and cultural district in Downtown Oklahoma City, largely regarded as a regional center of jazz music, black culture, and commerce from the 1920s to the 1950s2—made him the first African-American architect to open an office in the state of Oklahoma.3 An honor that was challenged by state officials after Jackson advertised his practice in the Oklahoma City Directory. As noted by Gabbert in African American Architects, because he was relying on his Kansas license to advertise as an architect in Oklahoma, state officials made him withdraw his listing, as he was not yet licensed to practice in-state.
Undeterred, Jackson continued running his private practice at 201 Slaughter Street in Oklahoma City, where he designed small houses and “his largest commissions,” such as “a Moderne-style, red brick, $100,000 educational building (1951) for Saint John Baptist Church and a $150,000 clinic/office (1952) for Dr. Gravely E. Finley, which was also in the Moderne style but used blonde instead of red bricks.”4
He also completed numerous designs during this period throughout the state of Oklahoma in cities like Ardmore, Chickasha, Claremore, Guthrie, Midwest City, and his hometown of Wewoka. His portfolio comprised religious buildings, offices, residential properties, private meeting centers, and homes.5
Exterior of the building Jackson designed for Dr. Gravely E. Finley at 128 NE 2nd Street in Oklahoma City, prior to its demolition in 2010 to build an Aloft Hotel. Photo via Okie Mod Squad.
In April 1952, Jackson returned to academia in pursuit of his second master’s degree, as a graduate student at the University of Oklahoma.6 At the time of his enrollment in what was then its School of Architecture, Bruce Goff—Frank Lloyd Wright protégé and an iconic architect in his own right—was well into his fifth year as the school’s chairman, an era during which its “educational goals shifted from the Beaux Arts model to a focus on developing imagination and creativity within its professional curriculum.”7
In addition to shifting the school’s pedagogical aims, Goff is also noted in its legacy for fostering the American School movement, as well as the sense of American individualism and industriousness that characterized notable alumni like Jackson who, in addition to his rigorous study, completed numerous design commissions, endured an 11-month stint of “sundry bureaucratic paper shuffling”8 as an architectural engineer at the Tinker Air Force Base. And, most notably, succeeded at passing the two-day state licensing examination in Oklahoma—a challenge not without its hurdles.
To start, his initial registration for the state licensing exam in 1953 was rejected by state officials because of his Black Seminole heritage.9 A discriminatory decision made in complete disregard of the endorsements his application received from fellow members of the National Technical Association like Nathan Johnson (architect and principal of his own firm in Detroit, Michigan); Benson L. Dutton (head of the Department of Engineering at the Hampton Institute); and James Parsons (Professor of Engineering at Tennessee Agricultural & Industrial State College).10
To counter this setback, Jackson’s wife Savannah stepped in, using her connections as a former campaign staffer for Governor Johnston Murray, for whom she had worked during his successful 1951 bid, to intercede on her husband’s behalf.11 Her appeal proved successful, with “the governor [asking] Oklahoma City architects Lee and Thomas Sorey to sponsor Jackson for the examination and [ordering] state officials to accept [his] application.”12 With his course now corrected thanks in large part to Savannah’s petition, Jackson moved to take the exam.
On the big day, however, he found himself at a segregated hotel in downtown Oklahoma City, where he “had to enter the hotel through the rear entrance and was made to ride the freight elevator instead of the passenger elevator to the test site on an upper floor.”13 After being “hustled off to an unoccupied room where he took the test all alone except for the proctor,”14 he passed all but one section—structures. At this setback, Savannah assisted again, this time using her connections as a former secretary for Ortho McCracken, an architect based in her hometown of Hutchinson, to tutor Jackson in structures.15 Yet despite McCracken’s instruction, Jackson failed his second attempt.
It was on his third attempt on April 3, 1954, four months shy of completing the graduate program in urban planning at the University of Oklahoma, that Jackson finally succeeded in passing the licensing examination and became registered to practice in his home state of Oklahoma.16 An achievement that Leonard Bailey, Secretary-Treasurer of the Board of Examiners of Architects for the state of Oklahoma, described as a testament to Jackson’s “persistence and determination to pass the severe test imposed by our Board.”17 One marked by the many obstacles Jackson faced because of his heritage and color, “obstacles that White applicants never have to contend with,”18 as Bailey noted in a letter to the Board sent in advance of Jackson’s 1954 attempt.
Current view of Gould Hall, the main building for the Christopher C. Gibbs College of Architecture at the University of Oklahoma. Jackson enrolled in what was then the School of Architecture and Planning to pursue his second master’s degree under the tutelage of iconoclastic architect Bruce Goff. Photo via the University of Oklahoma.
With his licensing saga behind him, Jackson concluded his graduate studies at the University of Oklahoma with the completion of a terminal planning project that involved a radical form of tropical architecture in West Africa. He graduated on August 12, 1954 with a Master of Science in City Planning.19
From here the “1st Licensed Seminole and Colored Young Man in OK,”20continued crystallizing his vocational expertise through summer courses at the Oklahoma Agricultural and Mechanical College (now Oklahoma State University–Stillwater), until presented with a teaching opportunity in Nashville, TN. After accepting the offer to fill a position temporarily vacated by a professor on sabbatical, Jackson moved east to engage in yet more career-defining work.21
Defining Works & Legacy
On September 15, 1954, Jackson began teaching at the Tennessee Agricultural & Industrial State College (now Tennessee State University)1, a public historically black land-grant university founded in 1912 and still the only state-funded HBCU in the state of Tennessee.2 After completing his initial tenure as an engineering professor, the 28-year-old Jackson decided to stay on at the university in order to establish an architectural engineering program in The College of Engineering3: an Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) and National Association of Industrial Technology (NAIT) accredited college that currently counts NASA, Raytheon, and General Motors as corporate partners.4
When not teaching subjects like building construction and specification preparation at Tennessee State, the ever-industrious Jackson maintained a private architectural practice where he designed many homes, health clinics, churches, civic buildings, educational facilities, and residential properties in the Nashville metropolitan area.5
One notable example of historic works designed by Jackson in the city is the Pagoda of Medicine: a Mid-Century Modern building central to Nashville’s African-American history.6 As detailed in a press release by Historic Nashville, a non-profit organization that works to preserve architectural sites, the structure was designed by Jackson and constructed in 1963 as the private medical practice of Dr. Carl Ashley Dent, the first African-American physician offered a medical internship at Los Angeles County General Hospital and a missionary for the African-American Seventh-day Adventist Church.
View of the Pagoda of Medicine at 707 Young’s Lane in North Nashville, currently owned by the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The building was extant in the Haynes Area neighborhood as of September 2015. Though it maintains its original architectural integrity, it has suffered from water damage and vandalism since falling vacant in 2008. Photo by Garland Miller Gallaspy/Historic Nashville.
Despite setbacks he faced while practicing in Nashville, including questionable rejections of his request to become a member of the Middle Tennessee Society of Architects,7 Jackson designed many structures throughout the city including the Eighteenth Avenue Community Center on 18th Avenue; the Kelly Miller Smith Towers at 2136 Cliff Drive, named after a Baptist preacher, author, and prominent activist in the Civil Rights Movement based in Nashville; the Northwest YMCA (now the Robert E. Lillard Elementary School) at 3200 Kings Lane; and the University Health Center and University Music Building at Tennessee A&I.8 By 1966, the same year he married his second wife Marilyn Finley, Jackson’s practice extended to Detroit, MI,9 where he designed structures like the Grace CME Methodist Church at 642 West McNichols Road.10
Jackson continued practicing throughout the 1980s and 1990s until his passing on July 21, 1995 in Nashville. He was survived at the time by his second wife Marilyn, a native of Bolivar, TN, and their three children: Lillian Qinell Jackson, Leon Quincy Jackson, Jr., and Davis Andrew Jackson.11 Sons Leon and Davis took after their father in their own ways, the former becoming a pioneering “architect” of Nashville’s electronic music scene,12 the latter becoming an artist.13
Regarding Jackson’s professional legacy, several of his Modern landmarks still stand in Tennessee, Oklahoma, and Michigan, such as the Pagoda of Medicine, one of nine historic properties selected by Historic Nashville in 2015 as part of its annual “Nashville Nine,” an outreach effort aimed at preserving “properties threatened by demolition, neglect, or development.”14 Others have been lost to fire and demolition, such as two homes built during Jackson’s early days in Oklahoma City that were lost to suspected arson in 2013.15
One thing demolition, neglect, development, and even vandalism can and have not touched is the legacy of detailed and trailblazing work Jackson imparted to students through his leadership and instruction.16 A legacy students and alumni of Tennessee State University—such as Robi4’s own Michael D. Robinson, AIA, NCARB, NOMA and Carolyn D. Robinson, NOMA—carry forward as African-American architects and designers who stand on the shoulders of giants like Leon Quincy Jackson: a true Architect and American pioneer.
Leon Quincy Jackson, AIA “was a member of the National Technical Association, Architects’ League of Oklahoma City, American Institute of Architects, and Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. He was licensed by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards. In his leisure time he was an oil painter,”17 with black and gold perhaps among his palette.