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Black History Month
The LaGuardia and Wagner Archives Celebrates Black History Month
  • Black History Month Home
  • Introduction
  • Photographs/Drawings
  • Documents
  • Newspapers
  • Links
     


Introduction


John Louis Wilson, Jr.    John Louis Wilson, Jr. was born in Meridian, Mississippi in 1898. The grandson of slaves freed by the Union's victory in the Civil War (1861-5), Wilson spent his early years moving around the South where his father served as a minister at various churches.The young Wilson attended the Gilbert Academy Prep School in New Orleans, Louisiana, receiving his diploma in 1916. He continued his studies at New Orleans University (now known as Dillard University), earning his degree in 1920. Following college, John Louis Wilson was admitted to Columbia University's School of Architecture, graduating in 1928, as the first Black graduate of this prestigious program. By 1930 Wilson had satisfied all the requirements and became a licensed architect in New York.
     In 1935 Wilson received what was probably the highest profile project of his career: he was appointed to the team of architects charged with designing the Harlem River Houses at 151st Street and Harlem River Drive. The story of the Harlem River Houses can teach a great deal about the history of public housing and race relations in pre-war New York. Public housing in New York at this time was segregated. Following the Harlem Riots of 1935 there was added pressure to improve housing conditions for African-Americans. However, this sentiment did not result in attempts at desegregation of public projects. As part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal social programs, federal money was used for the first time to construct public housing in New York City. This money, from the Public Works Administration (PWA), was assigned to two projects: the Harlem River Houses, intended for Black tenants, and the Williamsburg Houses in Brooklyn, for whites.

     From the start, the Harlem River Houses was an ambitious project. The use of federal money made this building complex important nationally. For this reason, the laying of the first brick was memorialized with speeches and elaborate ceremony. Among the many luminaries present were New York City's Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia, PWA Administrator Harold L. Ickes, Commissioner Langdon Post of the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) and Walter N. White, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
     The team of architects on which John Louis Wilson served used this opportunity to design an innovative building complex, which is perhaps the greatest success in public housing in New York.Many of their ideas from the mid-1930s seem remarkably contemporary. Among these ideas are the use of large courtyards and open spaces, the planting of trees, low rise buildings, on-site facilities for child care and health care and public areas and community rooms.While the complex contains 574 apartments, even today tenants talk about a real sense of community. For these reasons the Harlem River Houses are one of very few public housing projects designated New York City Landmarks.

     After the completion of the Harlem River Houses, John Louis Wilson, Jr. continued to serve the city of New York as an architect with the City Parks Department until 1960. At the same time Wilson ran a successful private practice. Working to help Blacks in the field of architecture, he was a founding member of the Council for the Advancement of the Negro in Architecture, which later merged with the American Institute of Architects (AIA). From 1967 to 1970 Wilson served as chairman of the Equal Opportunities Committee of the AIA. He went on to win many prestigious architectural awards. In 1989 John Louis Wilson, Jr. passed away at the age of 91.
     The LaGuardia and Wagner Archives invite you to explore the history of John Louis Wilson, Jr. and the Harlem River Houses. The following links show some of the many Photographs, Drawings and Documents from our collection of NYCHA records. The Oral History is from an interview with Wilson in a class at LaGuardia Community College conducted by Professor Richard K. Lieberman, Director of the LaGuardia and Wagner Archives.The newspaper articles come from the New York Times from 1935 to 1989. The Links will take you to other sites of interest regarding African-American History.