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Pittman, William Sidney (1875–1958)

Everett L. Fly, rev. by Carol Roark Biography Entry

William Sidney Pittman, African American architect, was born in Montgomery, Alabama on April 21, 1875, to Sarah Pittman, a laundress, and an unknown father. Throughout his architectural career, he typically identified himself as W. Sidney Pittman. He attended Tuskegee Institute, where he completed programs in woodwork and architectural-mechanical drawing in 1897. He then entered Drexel Institute in Philadelphia, where he completed the architecture and mechanical drawing program in 1900. From late 1900 to 1905 Pittman worked at Tuskegee Institute as head of the department of architectural drawing and drew plans for several campus buildings. He was also responsible for overseeing all campus construction. Pittman left Tuskegee in 1905 and shortly thereafter established his own private architectural practice in Washington, D.C. In 1906 he was commissioned to prepare a design and construction documents for the Negro Building at the Jamestown Exposition, the world's fair held in Virginia in 1907. He was the first African American architect to receive a federal contract. This project raised his profile as an architect and brought Pittman many commissions, including schools, a town hall, and the Twelfth Street YMCA building, which still stands in Washington, D. C. Pittman gained recognition as one the most accomplished Black architects in America. He was also involved in community development in Fairmont Heights, Maryland, where he lived. Pittman organized and was elected president of the Fairmont Heights Improvement Company, an investment organization geared toward fostering an alternative to the inner-city ghetto. He was president of the Heights Citizens Committee and the Washington chapter of the Negro Business League, for which he edited the Negro Business League Herald.

In 1907 Pittman married Portia Washington, a music teacher and the daughter of Booker T. Washington, founder and principal of Tuskegee Institute. In late 1912 the Pittmans moved to Dallas, Texas, where they raised two sons and a daughter. After a short stay at 2213 Juliette, the family moved to 1018 Liberty (named Germania prior to 1918), where Pittman operated his architectural practice from his home. He was the first practicing Black architect in Texas. During this period many African American architects focused on designing churches because those institutions were among the few that could afford to pay an architect. However, Pittman was able to broaden the scope of his work beyond churches to include civic structures, manufacturing plants, structures for higher education, and fraternal buildings. During his sixteen-year practice in Dallas, he designed several major projects in the city, as well as buildings in Fort Worth, Houston, San Antonio, Waco, and Waxahachie. Five of his known structures still stood in 2020, which included the Allen Chapel AME Church (1914) in Fort Worth, Pythian Temple (1915) in Dallas, Joshua Chapel AME Church (1918) in Waxahachie, St. James AME Church (1918) in Dallas, and Wesley Chapel AME Church (1926) in Houston.

All of Pittman’s other known buildings in Texas have been demolished. The Colored Carnegie Library of Houston (1913) was torn down in 1962 to yield to a freeway. The United Brothers of Friendship Hall of San Antonio (1915) and Pittman’s residence designed for John P. Starks (1918-1919) in Dallas also fell to freeway construction. The Girls Dormitory (1921) on the campus of Paul Quinn College in Waco, was destroyed by fire in 1954. Fire also took two Dallas buildings, the Riverside Park Auditorium (1923) in Dallas in 1930 and the West Texas Manufacturing Company (1923), which housed a soft drink production plant and other businesses, in 1941. In Houston, the five-story Grand United Order of Oddfellows (Negro) lodge building was constructed from Pittman's plans in 1924. It later housed the headquarters of Atlanta Life Insurance, but was razed in 1982 to make way for parking and annex space for the Alley Theatre. The Colored Carnegie Library of Houston and the Pythian Temple of Dallas were acclaimed across the United States in newspapers and magazines. The library was the first one for Blacks in Houston. The Pythian Temple was almost totally financed by the Black citizens of Dallas and built by the Black-owned Walton Construction Company. Both structures were presented as examples for other African Americans to emulate. They were benchmarks for Texas and the United States.

In late 1923 Pittman helped organize and became president of the Brotherhood of Negro Building Mechanics in Texas using the group as a platform to advocate that all African Americans use only Black labor and businesses in order to promote the advancement of the race. In 1928 he ceased to practice as an architect. Shortly thereafter, Pittman and his wife separated, and she returned to Tuskegee where she worked as a choir conductor and teacher. On August 18, 1928, Pittman began to publish a weekly newspaper, The Brotherhood Eyes. It was styled as, “the newspaper that doesn’t cross the color line.” He used the paper to vent his criticisms of the Black community. A firm believer in supporting Black businesses, Pittman charged the Black middle class with hypocrisy for patronizing white businesses instead of Black ones. He also criticized Black ministers for their lax morals. One businessman brought legal action, and in 1937 Pittman was convicted of sending obscene matter through the United States mail and sentenced to five years in Leavenworth Penitentiary. Pittman was released early on parole and in 1939 returned to Dallas, where he lived a quiet life. He died in Dallas on March 14, 1958, and was buried in the Glen Oaks Cemetery in south Dallas. Fellow architect Enslie Oglesby, Jr., donated a stone grave marker twenty-seven years later, a tribute, he said, “from one architect to another.”

Alissa Falcone, “Meet Drexel’s First African American Male Graduate: William Sidney Pittman.” Drexel Now, February 5, 2016, http://drexel.edu/now/archive/2016/February/William-Sidney-Pittman/, accessed May 10, 2020. Carolyn Perritt, “The Dissident Voice of William Sidney Pittman,” in Legacies: A History Journal for Dallas and North Central Texas (Spring 2004). Carol Roark, “The Story of the Pythian Temple,” in Legacies: A History Journal for Dallas and North Central Texas (Spring 2017). Ruth Ann Stewart, Portia: The Life of Portia Washington Pittman, the Daughter of Booker T. Washington (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1977). Dreck Spurlock Wilson, ed. African American Architects: A Biographical Dictionary 1865-1945 (New York and London: Routledge, 2004).

Categories:

  • Architecture
  • Architects
  • Peoples
  • African Americans
  • Visual Arts

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Everett L. Fly, rev. by Carol Roark, “Pittman, William Sidney,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed October 27, 2020, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/pittman-william-sidney.

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