From 'Tech' to Tuskegee:
The Life of Robert Robinson Taylor,

Clarence G. Williams

Few blacks were part of the MIT community in its early years, even though founder William Barton Rogers had shown a keen interest in issues relating to race. In 1863, Rogers had praised blacks--particularly the bravery exhibited by black troops during the Civil War--and noted "the capacity of these people for knowledge and training."(1) The earliest evidence of blacks at MIT dates from the 1870s, more than a decade later, in photographs of service staff in the old drill hall and gymnasium on Boylston and Clarendon Streets in downtown Boston. "Jones' Lunch," a small cafeteria located at one end of the gym, was run by a black caterer named Jones, with the assistance of a small staff of black cooks, washers, and waiters. Evidently there were no black faculty and no black students at MIT at the time. The first black student to attend MIT appears to have been Robert Robinson Taylor, who enrolled in 1888.(2) Almost seventy more years elapsed before the first black faculty member--Joseph R. Applegate, a linguist--was hired in 1955.(3)

Robert Taylor arrived in Boston in September 1888. Despite skepticism on the part of friends and relatives back home in Wilmington, North Carolina, he was brimming with enthusiasm about the prospect of attending MIT. "When it was known that I was to leave my home to study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology," Taylor later recalled, "many of the home people asked, What is the use? And a question of similar nature was asked by many in other places. After graduation, what? Where is the field?"(4) These were valid, practical questions. What opportunities existed for a young black Southerner trained at a white institution in the northeast? Was it worth all the trouble and expense?

Born on 8 June 1868 in Wilmington, Taylor came from a relatively privileged family background. His father, Henry Taylor, was the son of a white slaveowner and black mother, and as such had been allowed enough freedom before the Civil War to go into business for himself. He developed a prosperous career as a contractor and builder, constructing cargo ships that plied trade routes between the United States and South America via the Caribbean. Also active in building construction, he erected a number of commercial and residential edifices in the Wilmington area and elsewhere. The Taylor family resided at 112 North 8th Street in Wilmington.(5)

Robert Taylor's early schooling took place in Wilmington at the Williston School and later at the Gregory Institute, a school for blacks operated and maintained by the American Missionary Association. After graduating, he worked in his father's business and learned the rudiments of the building trade. Both father and son soon agreed that the younger Taylor should formalize his technical training. They set their sights on MIT, arguably the institution with the best program in architecture available. "The Institute," as one professor in the architecture department described it around this time, "offers unsurpassed advantages for the study of architecture."(6) With this reputation to go on, the doubts expressed by friends and relatives did not dampen the Taylors' enthusiasm. When Robert Taylor arrived in Boston to sit the entrance examination for MIT, he was hopeful--even confident--that he would be admitted to the Institute that fall.

At the time, prospective students were tested in various subjects: English, algebra, geography, history, literature, arithmetic, geometry, and one foreign language (ordinarily French or German); the only exemptions were given to students who had already earned degrees elsewhere. Taylor's performance was mixed. He passed English, algebra, geography, literature, and French, but failed history, geometry, and the "Metric system" unit in arithmetic. As a result, he was admitted to the regular freshman class on 23 September 1888, on the condition that he take makeup tests in the failed subjects. He sat for and passed makeups in history and geometry during his first semester, in metrics his second semester.(7)

Taylor as a student at
Taylor as a student at MIT, ca. 1890.
Photograph courtesy of the MIT Museum

The class of 1892 was the largest on record since the Institute's founding; all told, 328 registered for the fall semester of 1888.(8) As a freshman, Taylor lodged at 62 Philips Street in Boston; later he resided at 63 Fayette Street, 23 Porter Street, and 367 Northampton Street.(9) Having worked in his father's business for a period, he entered MIT a couple of years older than the average freshman coming straight out of high school. Also, he was one of a mere handful of students from the South; most MIT students at the time were New Englanders, with a smattering from other parts of the country and from overseas. In fact, there was a prejudice of sorts against Southerners, even against those--white and black--whose families hailed originally from the South. An article appearing in the student newspaper The Tech in 1887, for example, referred to a region of southern Ohio as "the lazy belt," so named because of "certain characteristics of its inhabitants" who "in past time have wandered westward from the `Old Dominion'."(10)

Taylor appears to have adjusted quite well to his new environment, however, at least in the area of academic performance. His record at MIT during the four years he attended, 1888-1892, was above the class average; in fact, it may have been at or near the top of his class.(11) Most of his grades were in the rank of "creditable" passes--better than satisfactory, in other words. He earned honors in trigonometry, architectural history, differential calculus, and applied mechanics; he never failed a course. In June 1890 and again on 18 September 1891, he was recommended for the Loring Scholarship, which he held for two consecutive academic years--1890-1891 and 1891-1892. He may have been the first recipient, in fact. The Loring Scholarship, one of several stipends available to MIT students who had proven their potential through hard work and superior performance, had been established through a $5,000 bequest from the will of Elisha Thacher Loring.(12) A number of the scholarships offered at MIT were dedicated to a specific purpose or type of candidate--a woman, a graduate of Milton High School, a graduate of Boston High School--and Taylor did not qualify for any of these. The Loring, however, had no such restrictions. The only requirements were need and performance. "A student who is not greatly in need of aid cannot honorably apply for a scholarship," the regulations stated, "and none will be awarded to a student if, either from physical, mental, or moral weakness, he gives little promise of future usefulness."(13)

Taylor with fellow
Taylor with fellow students, ca. 1892.
Photograph courtesy of the MIT Museum.

In addition to his overall academic record, Taylor's "promise of future usefulness" was evident in the subject he chose as a final project for his major in architecture (Course IV). His topic--"Design for a Soldiers' Home"--was announced, along with the topics of other seniors in Course IV, in a March 1892 number of The Tech. The editors apologized for the lack of specificity in some of the titles: "We regret that some of the subjects are not more definite and explicit; but as the work of a great many is as yet vague in so far as detail is concerned, we have been unable to obtain more self-explanatory titles."(14) Unlike some of his classmates, however, Taylor had designed his project carefully and was already well on his way to carrying it through to completion.

The project involved creating plans for a nursing or convalescent home for aged, infirm Civil War veterans--a segment of the population that was increasing rapidly in number and that had become a source of considerable social concern almost thirty years after the end of the war. The federal government had already begun to tackle the problem of long-term care for veterans. While Taylor's thesis introduction shows that he was aware of this development, it is unclear whether he thought of his project as a tangible contribution to public policy or merely as an exercise--albeit a timely one--to fulfill an academic requirement. What is clear is that he used many of the ideas developed in his thesis to professional advantage later in his career.

Taylor's thesis is comprised of handwritten text (eight pages) and two meticulously constructed architectural drawings.(15) One drawing depicts the outside of the proposed building from front ground level, the other is a floor plan. In Course IV, graphics was paramount; each student's drawings were examined and critiqued by a jury from the Boston Society of Architects. The supplementary text accompanying drawings generally consisted of a brief statement regarding project rationale and design specifications. Taylor's statement was straightforward and to the point:

In view of the number of soldiers who fought in the late war now suffering from the infirmities of old age and thereby incapable of supporting themselves, the government purposes erecting a home where about two hundred may be cared for comfortably.

This home must have, at least, the following rooms, viz, parlors, libraries, dormitories, dining rooms, a large play-room, an entertainment hall and chapel, a dispensary, an operating room, an examining room, a convalescent room, laundries, and toilet-rooms.

In a building of this kind, the designer should keep several things prominently in his mind. He should have the different parts of his building well connected in order to allow free circulation; still, he ought not connect too intimately the hospital with parts of the building designed for other uses. Then, as the inmates of the home are infirm, he should use the greatest allowable area and as few stories as possible in order to avoid climbing several flights of stairs. For whatever purpose intended, he should have his rooms large, well lighted, and well ventilated.

Taylor showed a remarkable sensitivity not only to engineering detail but also to artistic aesthetics, to health concerns such as proper ventilation, and to the general comfort of inmates, staff, and visitors. This was no merely rectangular, functional design: "Entering under an arch sixteen feet wide in the middle of the officers quarters, a person ascends a flight of ten steps, and enters the vestibule ... from which he passes into either of the two rooms, twelve feet square, one on the right, the other on the left, or into the large hall. In this hall he sees four statues in niches, Corinthian pilasters on the sides of the four broad doors in opposite sides of the hall, a large cornice at the top of the wall enriched with frescoes, and a beautifully panelled ceiling." It was an ambitious plan, undoubtedly more elaborate than anything the federal government would have been willing to adopt for this purpose. The overall scheme reflected both the style of large French institutions and the problems studied and taught at the Ecole de Beaux Arts in Paris, where many members of the architecture faculty at MIT had been trained.

Text from Taylor's thesis

Text from Taylor's thesis. Courtesy of the MIT Archives.

Thesis drawing - plan

Thesis drawing - plan. Courtesy of the MIT Museum.

Thesis drawing - elevation

Thesis drawing - elevation. Courtesy of the MIT Museum.

During his course of study at MIT, Taylor talked in person on more than one occasion with Booker T. Washington, the prominent black educator and race leader from Tuskegee, Alabama. In 1881, about a decade earlier, Washington had founded Tuskegee Institute--a black school that started as a normal (teacher training) school with a few ramshackle buildings and a small grant from the state of Alabama, but that within a couple of decades became one of the best-known African-American schools in the nation, with substantial funding from northern philanthropists, industrialists, and businessmen such as Andrew Carnegie and Julius Rosenwald.(16) In contrast with the emphasis placed on intellectual pursuits by W. E. B. Du Bois and some other contemporary black leaders, the curriculum at Tuskegee stressed manual training, industrial education, and useful crafts that would prepare students for jobs. Washington advocated a gradualist rather than a radical approach to improving conditions for blacks in the post-Emancipation period, with hard work and self-help as the primary channels to economic and social advancement. This approach was consistent with a philosophy first laid out formally by Washington in 1895. In a speech delivered before the Cotton States and International Exposition--a speech sometimes referred to as the "Atlanta Compromise"--Washington urged blacks to "cast down your bucket where you are," that is, to accommodate to segregation and discrimination imposed by custom or law, to acquiesce in a system of socially separate relationships while at the same time striving to work with whites for mutual economic advancement. Washington's philosophy found ready acceptance among whites, both north and south, and among many blacks.

It is not certain exactly how or when Washington got wind of Taylor's excellent record at MIT, but he was often on the lookout for qualified blacks whom he hoped to recruit for leadership roles at Tuskegee. He had made a fundraising tour through New England as early as 1882, and quickly developed contacts within a number of organizations interested in educational work in the South. One of these groups was the Woman's Home Missionary Association, based in Boston; another was the Women's New England Club. Washington delivered a speech sponsored by the latter body in Boston on January 27, 1890. In addition to moral and financial support, he spoke about an even more important ingredient--manpower--in fulfilling the mission of Tuskegee:

And herein lies the solution of this vexed Southern problem. Some one to lead. This is bringing a race from darkness into light and putting it on its feet. I do not believe that there is any missionary work in the world that gives such satisfactory results in so short a time for the money spent. We do not ask direct help for the masses but help to enable such institution[s] as Tuskegee to send teachers as leaders and guides into every community. ... The one good thing that the negro got out of slavery was the power of hard work. He works now, but he does not know how to use the results of his labor.(17)

Washington also delivered a rousing address at the Old South Meeting House, Boston, on December 15, 1891.(18) Whether or not Taylor attended or read about either of these speeches in the newspapers (he was mid-way through his MIT program at the time), he was almost certainly aware of Washington's public-relations trips to Boston, and it was during one or more of these excursions that the two men discussed the possibility of a role for Taylor at Tuskegee. While in Boston, Washington lodged at 25 Beacon Street, not far from the old MIT campus at Boylston, Clarendon, and Exeter Streets.(19) His trips were intended, in part, to establish a close relationship with wealthy, influential Bostonians who might contribute to the Tuskegee cause. Washington, as one scholar has aptly summarized it, was "a stranger neither to Beacon Street nor to Harvard Yard."(20) One wealthy Bostonian whom he pursued, Henry Lee Shattuck, wrote to Washington in 1906 saying he knew of "nothing more inspiring than the history of Tuskegee."(21)

What Washington had in mind was for Taylor to develop the nascent industrial program at Tuskegee and to plan and direct the construction of new buildings for the campus. Taylor seemed like an ideal recruit for several reasons: he was black, a Southerner, bright, a hard worker, and--last but not least--the recipient of a sound education at the premier technical institute in the country. The emphasis placed at MIT on applied, practical aspects of science and engineering would have appealed to Washington; it was more in line with the Tuskegee mission than, say, the focus on a classical, liberal arts education at Harvard. Ironically, W. E. B. Du Bois was beginning his doctoral studies in history at Harvard around the time that Washington and Taylor were discussing Taylor's possible move to Tuskegee.

At the MIT faculty meeting on May 26, 1892, Taylor was one of twelve students in Course IV recommended for the degree in architecture.(22) The graduation exercises took place on May 31 at Huntington Hall in the Rogers Building on Boylston Street. After a reading of thesis abstracts, president Francis Amasa Walker delivered an address and conferred degrees. The assembly was then invited to visit the various buildings and to view samples of the graduates' work. The architectural drawings on display in the Walker Building at the corner of Clarendon and Boylston Streets no doubt included Taylor's designs for the disabled soldiers' home.(23)

MIT Class of 1892
MIT Class of 1892; Taylor is in fourth row, at extreme right.
Photograph courtesy of the MIT Museum

There is some uncertainty as to where Taylor located right after his graduation, but he did not head directly to Tuskegee. He may have worked during the summer of 1892 for an architectural firm in Cleveland, Ohio; by his own testimony, he "took up the practice of architecture and designed several private and public buildings."(24) The encounters with Booker T. Washington in Boston, however, had inspired an interest in somehow combining architecture with a career in the field of education. Taylor received offers from five schools--including the one from Tuskegee--to organize and direct industrial programs. After "some hesitancy," he finally accepted the Tuskegee offer.(25) Among subsequent notable hires at Tuskegee was George Washington Carver, who joined the faculty there in 1896 after earning bachelor's and master's degrees at Iowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts.

Taylor arrived at Tuskegee in the fall or winter of 1892. With the exception of a brief period from 1899-1902, when he returned to Cleveland to work on his own and as a draughtsman for the architectural firm of Charles W. Hopkinson, his entire career was spent at Tuskegee. He was instructor in architectural drawing and architect to the institution, 1892-99. Following his return to Tuskegee from Cleveland in 1902, he served as architect and director of "mechanical industries" (sometimes referred to simply as "industries" or as "industrial training") until his retirement in the mid-1930s. He also served for a period as vice-principal of Tuskegee, beginning in 1925. In 1929, under the joint sponsorship of the Phelps-Stokes Fund, the Liberian government, and Firestone Rubber, he went to Kakata, Liberia to lay out architectural plans and devise a program in industrial training for the proposed Booker T. Washington Institute.(26) This institution became known as "the Tuskegee of Africa." Also in 1929, Taylor was awarded an honorary doctorate by Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. He served on the Mississippi Valley Flood Relief Commission (appointed by President Herbert Hoover) and was chairman of the Tuskegee chapter of the American Red Cross. Following his retirement to his native Wilmington in 1935, the governor of North Carolina appointed him to the board of trustees of Fayetteville State Teachers College. Taylor was also a trustee of Chestnut Street Presbyterian Church in Wilmington and treasurer of the local "colored" library board. He was a mason, as well as a member of the Phi Gamma Mu and Phi Beta Sigma fraternities, the Society of Arts in Boston, the American Economic Society, and the Business League of Tuskegee.

Class in mechanical
 Tuskegee Institute, ca. 1897
Class in mechanical drawing, Tuskegee Institute, ca. 1897;
Taylor is at right. Source:
Southern Letter 14 (Feb. 1897): 1

At Tuskegee, Taylor was known as a hard, productive worker and as a devoted advocate of Washington's educational and social vision. His first building on campus--Science Hall--was completed in 1893. Max Bennett Thrasher, a prominent white ally of Washington's (Science Hall was later renamed Thrasher Hall in his honor), described the building as "a handsome three-story brick building containing class-rooms, laboratories and several sleeping rooms for the teachers and boys."(27) It was constructed entirely by students, using bricks made also by students under Taylor's supervision. The project epitomized Washington's philosophy of instilling in Tuskegee students, the descendants of ex-slaves, the value and dignity of physical labor; it provided an example to the world--and especially to potential donors--of the capabilities of blacks in the building trades, and it underscored the larger potential of the manual training curricula being developed at Tuskegee. The proportions and parts of the design of Science Hall harked back to Taylor's MIT thesis, completed just a year earlier.

A number of other buildings followed--not all of which were completed by Taylor, who was away from Tuskegee (except for short visits) from 1899-1902. After Science Hall came the Chapel, erected between 1895 and 1898--a structure that Taylor considered his masterpiece. Funded by the Misses Phelps Stokes (New York philanthropists), the Chapel was a graceful, round-arch structure and the first electrified building in the county; it was destroyed by fire in 1957. Thrasher described it this way, not long after it was built:

The chapel is built of brick, with stone trimmings. The plan is that of a cross, the dimensions being one hundred and fifty-four feet through the nave and choir, and one hundred and six feet through the transepts. The seating capacity of the auditorium is twenty-four hundred. All of the devotional services are now held in this building, the annual Negro Conference meets here, and it was in this building that President McKinley spoke when he visited Tuskegee. The building of this chapel illustrates, as well as any one instance can, the methods of the industrial training at Tuskegee. The plans for the building were drawn by the school's instructor in architectural and mechanical drawing. The bricks, one million two hundred thousand in number, were made by students in the school's brick yard and laid by the men in the brick-laying classes. The lumber was cut on the school's land and sawed in the saw mill on the grounds. The various wood-working classes did the work which came in their departments. The floor is of oak; all the rest of the finish is in yellow pine, and the use of this wood in the lofty arch of the ceiling gives a particularly rich effect. The pews were built after a model designed by one of the students, and another student designed the cornices. The tin and slate roofing was put on by students, and the steam heating and electric lighting apparatus was installed by them ...(28)

Booker T. Washington referred to the Chapel as the "most imposing building" at Tuskegee.(29)

Science Hall, later called Thrasher Hall. The Chapel.
Science Hall, later called Thrasher Hall.
The Chapel.
Source: Max Bennett Thrasher, Tuskegee: Its Story and Its Work
(Boston: Small, Maynard & Co., 1900), between pp. 48 & 49.

After the Chapel came The Oaks (1899), a handsome brick president's house where Washington dispensed "a generous hospitality to the school's guests and to the teachers of the Institute";(30) Huntington Hall and the four Emery dormitories (1900); Dorothy Hall (1901), the women's trades building; Carnegie Library (1901); the Administration (or Office) Building (1902-03); Rockefeller Hall (1903), a men's residence; Douglass Hall (1904); Collis P. Huntington Memorial Building (1904-05), an academic center; Tantum Hall (1907); Milbank Agriculture Building (1909); Tompkins Hall (1910), a dining facility; White Hall (1910), a girls' dormitory; John A. Andrew Memorial Hospital (1913); the Laundry (1915), now the Carver Museum; James Hall (1921); Sage Hall (1927); Wilcox Trade Buildings (1928); Logan Hall (1931); Armstrong Science Building (1932); and Hollis Burke Frissell Library (1932).(31) Emmett J. Scott, a Tuskegee administrator whose son Emmett Jr. was later to attend MIT (S.B., 1921), referred to Taylor's architectural contributions as epitomes of the institution's overall commitment to standards of excellence. Writing in 1906, shortly after the completion of the Huntington Memorial Building, he observed:

The Collis P. Huntington Memorial Building ... would be a credit and delight to any municipality. There is everything about the exterior and interior that must awaken a sense of pride in every pupil who enters its portals. Its facilities are sensible and unostentatious, yet they meet every requirement of the department. What is true of the new Academic Building is likewise true of the various dormitories for girls and boys. ... Thus it is that in dormitory, recitation-room, shop, dining-hall, library, chapel, and landscape, the idea that only the best is worth having and striving for is emphasized as an object-lesson and principle with such insistence that it becomes an actual part of a student's training and life.(32)

Collis P. Huntington Memorial Building
Collis P. Huntington Memorial Building.
Source: Booker T. Washington, ed.,

Tuskegee & its People: Their Ideals and Achievements
(New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1906), between pp. 26 & 27

That same year Tuskegee treasurer Warren Logan remarked on the dramatic strides made in the building program under Taylor's direction: "The buildings of the Institute show a steady progression in quality of workmanship, materials, and architectural design and efficiency."(33) Students sometimes attested to the role of architecture in establishing an inspirational aura or atmosphere at Tuskegee. "Tuskegee was a surprise to me," Lewis A. Smith wrote of his arrival as a student in the mid-1890s; "it surpassed my fondest hope. The majestic buildings, the monuments to the fidelity and building skill of past classes, the well-designed landscape architecture, made me feel that I had at last found the place where I could be prepared for real life."(34) And, at the dedication of Tompkins Hall in 1910, Tuskegee trustee Robert C. Ogden called Taylor up to the platform for a display of special appreciation. This event, along with Taylor's other architectural achievements on campus, led the Tuskegee Alumni Bulletin to suggest that "Mr. Taylor occupies in the Negro Race in architecture the position which Tanner holds in painting and Dunbar attained unto in poetry."(35) Taylor's reputation as the individual primarily responsible for Tuskegee's architectural beauty and coherence long survived him; his "blending of art and science," according to Frederick D. Patterson (Tuskegee president, 1935-1953), was recognized in the eventual designation of the campus as a National Historic Site.(36)

Washington took careful note of just about every detail in the building program at Tuskegee--to a point that some architects would have found frustrating. On board a ship headed for Europe in the spring of 1899, he wrote as follows to his half-brother John Henry Washington, who often served as acting principal in his absence:

I think it well for you and Mr. Logan to arrange with Mr. Taylor in some way to draw the plans for the girls' Industrial building. This building should contain a large room for washing, one for ironing, one for drying, and it seems to me, a room for recitation. You understand that the old laundry is to be moved into this new building. With steam machinery, however, I am sure that half the space which the present laundry occupies will do for the new laundry.

This building should also contain rooms for two modern kitchens, two model dining-rooms, two model bed-rooms, two model sitting rooms, a large room for dressmaking, one for millinery, one for plain sewing, and small offices for the teachers in connection with these different divisions. It should also contain a small reception room, plenty of closets and pantries, etc. I do not want it to be more than two stories high, and should be so built that we can add to it at any time we see proper.

It will not be necessary to begin the erection of this building before I return home, but I want the plans to be all ready, as I wish to show them to the Misses Stokes in August. All told, this building must not cost more than twelve thousand dollars--less, if possible. It will therefore be necessary for Mr. Taylor to study how to make it cheap and plain, but good and substantial. It must, at the same time, contain plenty of room, that is, the rooms must not be too small.(37)

This building--Dorothy Hall--was completed in 1901, essentially along the lines of Washington's specifications.

In later years, as Taylor's administrative responsibilities grew, he had the collaboration of local black architects Leo Persley and Sidney Pittman. Persley was originally from Macon, Georgia; Pittman, who married Washington's daughter Portia, had been a student of Taylor's at Tuskegee and his assistant beginning in 1906 or earlier (Warren Logan noted that year: "The plans for all the buildings put up by the Institute are now in the division of architectural drawing in charge of Mr. R. R. Taylor, a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who is ably assisted by Mr. W. S. Pittman, a graduate of Tuskegee and of the Drexel Institute in Philadelphia"(38)). Taylor was active in a number of projects outside Tuskegee as well, including design and construction of schools and houses in North Carolina, Arkansas, Mississippi, Virginia, and Tennessee; the Carnegie Library at Livingston College, a black school in Salisbury, North Carolina; the "Negro Building" at the Alabama Agricultural Association Fair in Montgomery, 1906; possibly four buildings at Voorhees College, a black school in Denmark, South Carolina (these buildings may be attributable, however, to Pittman or other architects); and--in collaboration with Persley--the Masonic Lodge in Birmingham, Alabama, and the Dinkins Memorial Building at Selma University, both in the 1920s.

Taylor's loyalty and prolific output were often cited by Washington as a model for emulation by others at Tuskegee. In 1894, a staff member received the following reprimand:

I do not think that you are doing yourself justice here and I hope you will excuse me if I speak to you rather plainly. I very much hope that you will be able to remain here until the end of the year with credit to yourself and profit to the school. The main trouble is that you do not push ahead; you wait too much for somebody to direct and lead you. You ought to see, it seems to me, the difference between your work and that of Mr. Taylor, who has had about the same course of training as yourself. Mr. Taylor is constantly leading in his work, working in season and out of season. Instead of having someone to lead him he is constantly making suggestions as to what should be done.(39)

Taylor's value to Tuskegee, however, went beyond diligence and selfless devotion to Washington's cause. He managed to exert a healthy influence over Washington himself, demonstrating by personal example the danger of focusing on "manual arts" at the expense of all else. In 1907, for example, when Washington remarked that "We must not only have carpenters, but architects; we must not only have persons who can do the work with the hand, but persons at the same time who can plan the work with the brain," he was expressing an outlook that was less rigid, more expansive than it had been a decade earlier--an outlook modified, at least in part, by his relationship with Taylor.(40) Taylor's outlook, in turn, had been shaped to a considerable extent by his experience at MIT, whose motto "mens et manus" (mind and hand) captured the very duality that Taylor--and, under his influence, Washington--came to espouse at Tuskegee.

In 1913, Taylor was handpicked by Washington as one of five directors of a new periodical, Negro Farmer, slated to begin publication in February 1914. Taylor was the lone faculty member on the board; the others were top Tuskegee administrators--Washington, president; Emmett J. Scott, vice president; Charles H. Gibson, secretary; and Warren Logan, treasurer.(41) Yet another mark of Washington's respect for Taylor came a couple of years later. In his last annual report to the trustees (he died on November 14, 1915), Washington quoted with pride a passage from a report prepared by Taylor on the construction of a new power plant:

The galvanized iron roof which includes skylights, down spouts and the tar and gravel roofing was done by the Tinsmithing Division. The ornamental iron work which includes the iron stairs, iron platforms, etc., has been done by the Machine Division. All the cast iron manhole covers and frames were made by the Foundry Division. All the forging for the wrought iron rollers and other blacksmithing has been done by the Blacksmithing Division. The machine work on the wrought iron rollers, cast iron manhole covers and other such machine work has been done by the Machine Shop Division. All of the electrical wiring inside of the building and the lines extending over the school grounds has been done by the Electrical Division. A large part of the carpentry work was done by students and former students of the school. Mr. Jailous Perdue, who is one of our instructors in Carpentry, was the foreman in charge of the work. With some exceptions nearly all the brick work was done by our students and former students.

As far as Washington was concerned, there could be no better example of hard work and self-reliance--both hallmarks of the Tuskegee philosophy--than the way in which Taylor fulfilled his role as director of mechanical industries.

Even Taylor, however, did not come away unscathed by Washington's critical eye. The first hint of conflict came in the late spring of 1899, when Taylor decided to leave Tuskegee to return to architectural practice in Cleveland. Why he left--and quite suddenly at that--is uncertain. Publicly, he suggested that he was satisfied with what he had accomplished at Tuskegee and wished to expand his professional horizons; privately, he may have wished for a respite from Washington's autocratic methods, from the pervasive insistence on control over the creative aspects of Taylor's work--as in the Dorothy Hall project. If the reaction of Warren Logan, the Tuskegee treasurer, was any predictor, Washington felt piqued by Taylor's departure, and--requiring, as he always did, the undying devotion of his staff--may have considered it a form of betrayal. Logan wrote to Washington:

I enclose a note just received from Mr. Taylor. I have told him that I think he should notify you at once in regard to his intention not to return to Tuskegee next year. I am surprised that he did not let you know about it before you left for Europe; he must certainly have known about it in the spring.(42)

Nevertheless, Taylor's value to Tuskegee was such that Washington made efforts to attract him back.

Taylor returned to Tuskegee in 1902, and remained there for the rest of his career. Washington made certain that for every professional offer that came Taylor's way thereafter, Tuskegee would match or better it. In 1906, he wrote to Tuskegee board member Robert Curtis Ogden:

... in order to be absolutely sure of retaining Mr. Taylor's services, in my opinion I am sure we will have to add four or five hundred dollars to his present salary. The Oklahoma people are very insistent and very tempting in their offers. As I have told Mr. Peabody, I should consider it a far-reaching calamity for us to lose Mr. Taylor at Tuskegee.(43)

Executive Council of Tuskegee Institute,
ca. 1906
Executive Council of Tuskegee Institute, ca. 1906;
Taylor and Washington are seated second and fifth from left, respectively.

Source: Booker T. Washington, ed.,
Tuskegee & its People: Their Ideals and Achievements
(New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1906), between pp. 94 & 95.

Ogden approved a salary increase--although at the lower end, four hundred dollars--apparently agreeing with Washington that to lose Taylor (again) would not be in the best interests of the institution.(44) Money, however, seems to have been less important to Taylor than how to maximize his usefulness to the black community. Even though later in his career he was offered a number of more lucrative positions, including a college presidency, he "preferred to remain at Tuskegee believing that he could be of more service to the race in helping to develop this institution in its industrial side than in other places."(45) He was serving on Tuskegee's Executive Council at least as early as 1906.

Everyone at Tuskegee, no matter how valuable an asset to the institution, was subject to Washington's benevolent but firm despotism--and Taylor was no exception. As Washington's biographer, Louis R. Harlan, aptly summarized it: "[Washington] had the authority of a Victorian father over the campus community."(46)) Taylor came in for his fair share of paternal reprimands, dispatched on letterhead with Washington's characteristic bluntness; these letters typically left little doubt as to the transgressor's failings and what was expected to correct them. In March 1908, Washington admonished Taylor for lack of vigilance over the physical plant: "I understand there is a great deal of vulgar writing on the walls of the girls toilet rooms. Please see that they are whitewashed as soon as possible."(47) Similarly, in 1913 Taylor was chastised for not exercising sufficient attention to his supervisory duties:

I was at the brickyard this morning and stayed in the vicinity sometime.

I found that about only half the men were at work, the others were standing idly talking or going to or returning from the woods. There seemed to be nobody in charge of these men.(48)

At the same time, Washington relied on Taylor to help uphold the strict moral values expected of everyone in the Tuskegee "family." Taylor, for instance, apparently helped draft the report of a committee charged with investigating a case of sexual impropriety in 1913. The report, addressed to Washington and signed by Taylor and two other staff members, reads as follows:

The committee appointed to inquire into the behavior of Mr. Lovette and Miss Howard in the dining room have gone into the matter very exhaustively and beg to report our findings as follows:

Mr. Lovette denies positively that he had come in contact with Miss Howard in any way in the dining room, either by holding her hand, by any movement of the foot, or by touching her person in any way. He was very strong in his denial of this charge.

Miss Howard admitted that occasionally Mr. Lovette had shaken her hand bidding her good morning, and usually this was done under the table. At times he had also touched her foot and she innocently had touched his foot, but she attached no significance to this. Miss Howard stated that while she had noticed these various actions of Mr. Lovette she had made no comment on them nor did she wish to say anything to him, fearing that he might misconstrue her noticing this into a belief that she had some wrong idea about these actions.

The committee feels that Mr. Lovette did not tell the truth when he denied the charges. The committee further believes that Miss Howard is perfectly innocent of this matter and that she had no idea at all of any wrong doing. In fact she expressed surprise that this had been noticed at all by anyone in the dining room. If there is any blame to be attached to anyone we think it should rest solely on Mr. Lovette and not on Miss Howard.(49)

While such an incident might seem innocuous by today's relatively liberal standards of sexual expression, it clearly did not fit comfortably into the code or framework of behavior laid down by Washington for the Tuskegee community. Taylor's oversight role in the case is indicative of the extent to which Tuskegee staff were expected to commit themselves to the total life of the community--the social and moral aspects, as well as the strictly professional.

To develop a sound curriculum at Tuskegee, both Washington and Taylor looked to MIT as a model. In 1894, Washington had sought the advice of Ellen Swallow Richards, MIT's first woman graduate (1873) and a member of the MIT faculty since 1878, on the matter of staff recruitment: "I ... applied to Miss Richards, who has charge of the Household Department of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and through her I have been able to secure a Mrs. J. L. Kaine who is at present secretary of the Wisconsin Industrial School for Girls."(50) Nearly a decade later, Richards joined other women--including the wife of a Harvard professor and Stella Houghton Scott Gilman, a pioneer in women's education at Harvard--in urging Washington to establish at Tuskegee a department for the training of domestic servants.(51) MIT was mentioned by Washington in a speech delivered in Boston in 1903. Exhorting an audience of blacks to start small and work their way up gradually, he observed: "Hundreds of young men leave Harvard, the Institute of Technology and Amherst and begin in life at the bottom by working with the hands, and in this way actually create within a few years large industrial enterprises, which make them independent and powerful."(52) A year later, when asked to suggest themes for a speech to be delivered by Oswald Garrison Villard--journalist, champion of reformist causes, and grandson of the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison--Washington drew the connection to Tuskegee's mission even more explicitly: "Just as in Massachusetts they have the Institute of Technology and the Simmons Industrial School, so in the South there should be the Atlanta University, the Tuskegee Institute and others. There is a place for all these institutions to do their work. I do not believe in placing any limitation upon the mental development of the black man."(53) Other connections between Washington, MIT, and Tuskegee during this period included a 1906 letter from Washington to former MIT president Henry Smith Pritchett; a 1909 letter from Washington to Mrs. William Barton Rogers, widow of MIT's founder and first president, thanking her for her "help and interest in the work of this institution"; and a substantial bequest to Tuskegee--along with MIT, Harvard, Radcliffe, and Roanoke College--in the 1898 will of Edward Austin, a wealthy Bostonian.(54)

Taylor's own admiration for MIT as a model for Tuskegee's development was conveyed in a speech that he delivered at MIT in 1911. In April of that year, a large number of MIT graduates, students, faculty, and friends of the Institute gathered to celebrate the Institute's fiftieth birthday. Over two days they listened as President Richard C. Maclaurin and 68 other speakers--mostly MIT graduates--reflected on the MIT experience and its relationship to a number of contemporary issues in science and technology. Speakers hailed from many different walks of life: education, commerce, industry, private consulting, state and federal government, non-profit foundations, and professional societies. They had either volunteered or been invited to serve as core celebrants of the signing of MIT's charter by Governor John A. Andrew of Massachusetts, exactly fifty years earlier. The Congress of Technology, as the occasion was billed, provided an opportunity to lay MIT's accomplishments before the public. "The Institute has steadily advanced in power and influence," the preface to the published proceedings noted. "Its educational policy has served as a model for numerous similar institutions in this country and abroad, and its graduates have taken a prominent part in opening up the country, in developing its industries, in conserving the health of its citizens, and generally in adding to the national welfare by the application of scientific methods to the great practical problems of the day."(55)

Taylor was the lone black speaker at the Congress. He had not been listed on the original program published a month earlier, and it is unclear why he was included at the last minute. Nevertheless, on April 11 he delivered a paper entitled "The Scientific Development of the Negro."(56) It was the final paper in a session entitled "Technological Education in its Relations to Industrial Development," chaired by Arthur A. Noyes, professor of theoretical chemistry at MIT.(57) Taylor's role at the Congress attested to the importance of science and technology in the lives of Americans other than white men, although no evidence has been uncovered to suggest that conference organizers included him for this reason. A lone female voice was also included. Ellen Swallow Richards had been scheduled to deliver a paper entitled "The Elevation of Applied Science to an Equal Rank with the So-Called Learned Professions." The paper was printed in the proceedings, but Mrs. Richards did not appear at the Congress. She died unexpectedly on March 30, 1911. A week earlier, shortly after being stricken with heart trouble, she had rushed to put the finishing touches on her paper.(58)

Taylor began his paper by reflecting on the overall history of the black experience from slavery up to the present, almost half a century since the end of the Civil War. He laid out an insightful analysis of problems and prospects--the challenges and responsibilities facing blacks within the new social order:

It is about forty-five years since the negro was emancipated and, therefore, about forty-five years in which he has had an opportunity to think for himself. Prior to that time he was subject to the master class, who were responsible for providing work for him and seeing that he performed this work according to plans and methods definitely laid out. He engaged in the mechanical trades: there were the colored contractors in carpentry, in brickmasonry and in other mechanical lines, and the actual work of construction was done by colored mechanics. He built the houses, boats and bridges, made the wagons and buggies, did ordinary machine work. In some of the trades he developed a certain degree of skill, showing a large native capacity, but these were few and isolated cases. Where fine work was to be done, demanding a high degree of skill, men were brought from other parts of the country, or even European countries, to do the work. Whatever skill of hand may have been developed, the negroes were an unlettered people, and therefore lacked the mental training to back up the skill of hand. The negro was the farmer of the South: he raised millions of dollars' worth of cotton, the crop which has been the basis of the wealth of the South. The fruits and vegetables, the grains, were almost entirely the results of his labor. He did the domestic and personal service work, the work of the barbers, the waiters, the laundresses, the cooks. The colored man was, therefore, almost entirely a laborer, doing the unskilled work; in few, if any, cases did he engage in the higher forms of industrial or technical work. The years following the war were different in many ways, but the results of the training of years could not be changed overnight, and with them, as a whole, there was still the same feeling of dependence for the guiding, directing spirit of those who had done this so long. There was another element which now entered into the negro's life. The relation which had existed prior to the war had been one of laborer and director. The director in the eyes of the laborer was a man of leisure, one who had led a life of ease and plenty and happiness. It is not strange that, with changed conditions, with a chance to choose a career, he should turn to the life which he had seen lived by the ruling class, which, however full it really was of responsibilities and complex situations necessitating high administrative ability, appealed to him as a life of idleness and of pleasure. This was his idea of a freeman, and as a freeman he aspired to a life of this kind. He began to think of his old way of living and to hope for a new order. The ability to reach out and develop new lines of work, to study the things by which he was surrounded and to make the most of them, to go down into the earth and find the coal and the iron, the gold and the silver concealed there, to find out what the land would produce and how it would produce more in quantity and in variety by proper additions to the soil (in other words, the secrets of chemistry, of physics, of mathematics, of the principles of mechanics), all this was to him a closed book. And a people so environed could not get the most from their surroundings, nor themselves reach any higher development. Without the necessity of meeting emergencies which are constantly arising in every-day business life, there was no need to develop resourcefulness, quick expedients to overcome the unlooked-for occurrence, or the accident which happens, perhaps, the next minute. Constantly under the will of another and subject to his personal oversight, there was no place for that highest of opportunities in the business, commercial and technical world, the chance to organize, to direct, to administer. Executive ability or the chance to develop it by taking charge of work, of a business, laying out the plans, gathering the workmen and material, keeping everybody busy, looking ahead to avoid delays, these things which seem so natural to those with different surroundings and which are a part of their inheritance, had no part in the colored man's life. In fact, the opposite condition seemed the perfectly natural one. Instead of keeping material on hand to avoid delays, by not having them on hand, a few idle days might result, and where bread and clothes and shelter come whether one works or not, and no more and no less whether he works or not, the chances are that with most of us under such circumstances we would welcome the idle days, especially if the weather were warm and the fishing good.(59)

Taylor's ideas about the evolving framework of educational and professional opportunities for blacks appear to have marked an important middle ground in the polarized debate carried on at the time by Booker T. Washington (industrial emphasis) and W. E. B. Du Bois (intellectual emphasis). He drew from both leaders' philosophies, which he viewed as complementary rather than as conflicting.

Taylor's paper at the 1911 Congress continued with some reflections on the importance of technical education in social empowerment. He suggested that blacks, who quite understandably were anxious to break ties with their immediate past, had rejected the very technical trades in which they had developed some experience during slavery, and that they were therefore both slow to recognize the importance of technology in the modern world and reluctant to embrace its methods as a form of self-empowerment. Next, Taylor traced lines of career development within the black community, alluding to his own role--and by extension that of MIT--as a pioneer in reviving the interest of blacks in technical trades and professions:

Technical training has been the last of the educational methods to be accepted by the negro. As has been pointed out, the powerful and all-dominating influence of the master class in slavery days held up to him the constant example of what appeared to him as the power of a liberal education to secure comfort without effort. Hence as a freeman he aspired to the same life, and though that the means of attaining to such a life was to be "liberally educated." Book learning, as such, was therefore the panacea for all his ills. No sacrifice was too great, by parent and none by child, to attend school and get pure book learning, and as much of it as possible. Experience soon demonstrated that to the greater number there must be added to the "liberal" education the ability to do a particular thing well.

One or two pioneering young men more venturesome than others conceived the idea of becoming doctors. Some of their friends treated it as a joke. In spite of this they persisted, became regularly graduated physicians, and afterwards successful practitioners. This opened a new field and now there are about 3500 colored physicians in successful practice. From the doctor it was but a natural step to the dentist, the pharmacist and the trained nurse.

The engineer, the architect, the chemist were persons met with occasionally in the South, but rarely by the negro, and their impress on him was slight. The industrial conditions under which he had worked were not such as to lead him to seek any special industrial equipment. He was seeking to get away from it as far as possible. If not for himself, certainly he had other ambitions for his children. With deeper insight and a clearer vision, some of the white friends of the negro and some of the colored men themselves, studying the situation and noting the drift away from the industrial pursuits as applied to the skilled trades, and that great human industry, agriculture, began a crusade for the revival of an interest in them. With some personal degree of satisfaction I feel that I have taken some small part in this renaissance, and it is alluded to here because it has been through the influence of our Alma Mater in the results of the training received in this institution that such has been possible.(60)

Finally, Taylor cited examples to illustrate the kinds of rigorous ideas, approaches, and methods that Tuskegee had adopted from MIT and successfully applied within the context of a black educational institution. In 1892, when he first took up his position as architect and instructor in architectural and mechanical drawing at Tuskegee,

[t]here was no drawing attempted ... and the mechanical work was largely in the hands of men trained in the old way, who did their work usually without definite plans or drawings. Introducing plans, blue-prints and specifications as a part of every mechanical job, however small, and instructing the students in making and using drawings, led to changes which inevitably follow newer and better ways of doing things. Unable to respond to the new methods, the older men gradually gave way to younger and better trained men. ...

The work at Tuskegee Institute has offered the opportunity to come in contact with thousands of young men. These young men as graduates or undergraduates from the Tuskegee Institute have gone over large parts of this country. Some of the methods and plans of the Institute of Technology have been transplanted to the Tuskegee Institute and have flourished and grown there; if not the plans in full, certainly the spirit, in the love of doing things correctly, of putting logical ways of thinking into the humblest task, of studying surrounding conditions, of soil, of climate, of material and of using them to the best advantage in contributing to build up the immediate community in which the persons live, and in this way increasing the power and the grandeur of the nation. And there has been an ever-widening influence: one graduate of the Tuskegee Institute has done satisfactory architectural work for the United States Government, another is an architect in New York City, another is in successful practice in the State of Missouri, another is an installing and operating electrical engineer for a Southern town, another is a mechanical and operating engineer for an ice plant and water system for another Southern town. This list might be continued at considerable length and should serve as a witness of the part which the Institute of Technology is contributing to the scientific awakening of the negro.(61)

Throughout his life, Taylor retained a deep respect for MIT. In 1942, less than a decade after his retirement from Tuskegee, he wrote to the secretary of his MIT class indicating that he had just been released from treatment for an unspecified illness at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. "Thanks to a kind Providence and skillful physicians," he said, "I am much better now."(62) Not long afterwards--on December 13, 1942--he died suddenly while attending services in the Tuskegee Chapel, the building that he considered his outstanding achievement as an architect. His widow, Nellie C. Taylor, wrote to MIT president Karl Taylor Compton from the Taylor home at 313 McRae Street in Wilmington: "[My husband] had hoped to attend the fiftieth anniversary of his graduation this year but ill health prevented. He has always met his alumni obligations and loved his alma mater."(63) Mrs. Taylor enclosed some clippings from the local press. A letter in the Cape-Fear Journal read:

In the passing of Dr. Robert R. Taylor, an honored and highly regarded member of the colored race, both the white and Negro citizens lose one whose place will hardly be filled. Dr. Taylor was a man of fine character, strict integrity, progressive, of quiet mien, and one who held a fine sense of civic obligation and responsibility. It was a privilege of the leaders of the white race ... to confer with Dr. Taylor on frequent occasions relative to questions and problems affecting community racial relations. He was always sane and sensible in his viewpoint and ever actuated by a spirit always to cement friendly and cordial relations between the races.(64)

Taylor in later years.

Taylor in later years.
Photograph courtesy of the MIT Museum

To the news that a low-income housing development for black families would be named the Robert R. Taylor Homes, the paper editorialized: "It means a challenge to the Negro boys ... to pattern their lives so as to approach as a limit, the useful and helpful life lived by the one who has been so recognized."(65) Other newspapers included a statement from a Tuskegee colleague, effectively summarizing the feelings of many who knew Taylor and his work: "Esteemed by his friends, respected by his associates, and trusted by those who sought his counsel, he represented the flower of achievement among his own people, and stands as a type of American which the nation, without regard to race or creed, can point to with pride and satisfaction."(66)

13 January 1998
Blacks at MIT History Project
MIT Institute Archives & Special Collections
MIT History