David August Williston is a name little known today, even in the world of landscape architecture. But according to Dr. Douglas Williams, Student ASLA, Ph.D graduate from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, he is one of the trail blazers of the field. One of the first African American landscape architects, Williston designed some of the major campuses of historically African American colleges like Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute and Howard University in Washington, D.C. In his lifetime, he never experienced full integration, having passed away in 1962 at the age of 94, but managed to accomplish a lasting legacy of built work.
In a talk at Howard University’s School of Architecture, Williams wondered why Williston is so little celebrated. In part, he blames the lack of diversity in core landscape architecture texts, like the Landscape of Man, published in 1970, and Landscape Design, in 2001. “Where are the black people in these texts?”
He also pointed to the paucity of published books on African American cultural landscapes. Celebrated African American landscape architect Walter Hood, ASLA, published a book of his own work, but that was back in 1997. (Apparently, he is at work on a second book on his “hybrid landscapes”). The 2004 book African American Architects: A Biographical Dictionary, 1865-1945, an overview of some 100 designers, includes only 5-6 landscape architects. Williams bemoaned that mainstream attention to these designers only gets paid in a cursory fashion during Black History Month.
Williams highlighted a few examples of what he considers to be excellent African American scholarship on landscape: from J.B. Jackson’s The Necessity of Ruins and Other Topics, which states that “the garden landscapes of blacks are some of the least known and richest,” to We Shall Independent Be: African American Place-Making and the Struggle to Claim Space in the United States, a compendium edited by Angel David Nieves and Leslie M. Alexander, which explores the stories of African American communities displaced by Frederick Law Olmsted in the creation of Central Park.
Referring to Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell, which argues that geniuses are less isolated phenomena than important nodes in deep and rich social networks, Williams argued that Williston also collaborated widely. He tried to imagine Williston’s African American contemporaries, many of whom remain unknown. He tried to imagine how Williston was able to create an entirely African American system to achieve his landscape designs in the segregated deep South. And he tried to imagine how Williston, without access to white-owned nurseries, could have sought out native plants in the woods and cultivated them on his own. (Williston was one of the first African Americans to earn a bachelor’s degree in horticulture from Cornell University; there, his love of plants grew into a considerable expertise on plant propagation and cultivation.)
Williston taught horticulture to African American college students while also serving as a campus landscape architect for numerous historically black colleges. He spent 20 years at Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute, where he also worked with African American architect Robert R. Taylor to lay out the physical campus. According to The Cultural Landscape Foundation, he then settled in Washington, D.C. at the onset of the Great Depression, where he started his own firm. He designed the expansion of Howard University, and numerous other colleges, working well into his early 90s.
Williams’ hope is to completely digitize Williston’s archives and make them accessible online for future researchers, using them as a basis to create 3-D models of now-lost planting schemes, so more people can experience a Williston landscape.