Trailblazing through History
February is Black History Month. Landscape Architecture and Horticulture, at least when I was in school, did not have many references to African Americans in the books or lectures of those days. In fact, I don’t remember any at all. Of course, our curriculum was focused more on the principles of design, the science of horticulture, and future trends of the field and the technology that supports it. We really only had one class that catered to the history of my career choice, mainly through the lens of the European experience. But that’s a topic for another day.
This day—this month—I’d like to introduce you to David August Williston, one of the first recognized African American landscape architects in the United States. He would come to be known for his campus planning of historical black colleges and as an important horticulturist.
Born in 1868 in North Carolina as one of 12 children, he graduated from the Howard Normal School (now Howard University) in Washington, DC in 1895. He then attended Cornell University’s College of Agriculture where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree, the first African American to do so.
Williston returned to North Carolina to begin his teaching career at Tuskegee Institute, now Tuskegee University, where he would be professor of horticulture. He taught periodically for almost three decades.
Williston also oversaw the development of the Tuskegee campus when he was in charge of buildings and grounds from 1910 to 1929. His plans for the campus included allées of trees, open spaces in the style of quadrangles, formal-edged open spaces, and less-formal plantings in the center of campus. With his horticultural knowledge and expertise, he utilized the surrounding areas to propagate plantings for his designs. Williston designed the planting plans for many Tuskegee facilities, including the George Washington Carver Museum and The Oaks, the home of Booker T. Washington.
Booker T. Washington was the first president of Tuskegee. He lived in a home that was built in the Queen Anne style by students of Tuskegee as part of their curriculum. Williston contributed to the overall site plan by helping to design the landscape and grounds, locating the carriage house, the well-house, and a gazebo. The site plan also called for vegetable plots, cold frames, and even areas for livestock. Fruit trees and nut trees were also planned for the space as well as native species found near the campus. We might argue that this was a form of what we would call permaculture today.
While at The Oaks, Williston worked with George Washington Carver on the selection of plants. Carver, being well known for horticulture and being an agrarian scientist, further collaborated with Williston on other Tuskegee projects. Williston’s designs often mimicked his campus plans, utilizing native species such as elm, oak, maple, cedar, magnolia, catalpa, fringe tree, redbud, dogwood, sweetgum, cherry laurel, and American holly. Williston also used non-native species, but always used those that would thrive and prosper in the climate in which they were planted. In other words, the right plant for the right spot.
During the Great Depression, Williston returned to DC where he began the first African American-owned landscape architecture firm. While there, he completed the site planning and landscape design for the Langston Terrace Housing Project. This was the first federally funded housing project in Washington DC.
Williston helped to plan the campuses of other historical black institutions while practicing both landscape architecture and horticulture. These institutions include Fisk University, Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial, Clark University, Alcorn State University, Lane College, and Philander Smith College. Williston also aided in the expansion of Howard University in collaboration with African American architect Albert Cassell. At Tuskegee University, he consulted on the further design of the campus throughout its evolution, and ultimately prepared a landscape plan for the entire campus after World War II.
Williston was an important pioneer in landscape architecture and horticulture. Our shared American history is full of stories that may not have been in our school history books. Discovering them—and furthering our knowledge and understanding—enriches our lives.
Be curious, and let’s garden together. ▼
Eric W. Wahl is Landscape Architect at Pennoni Associates, and President of the Delaware Native Plant Society.