The lesser-known history of Buffalo's first African American architect

Jan 6, 2016

Credit Sydnie Perkins / WBFO News

His contributions to Buffalo are significant. Yet few people recognize the name John Brent. Now, the story of his life is being showcased at the Burchfield Penney Art Center.

The impressive gates at The Buffalo Zoo are beautiful, but almost always taken for granted. Just like the story of John E. Brent. Who is he?

John E. Brent
Credit Photo Harold Wallace, photographer, Portrait of John E. Brent, ca. 1950s; gelatin silver print on paper, 5 x 4 inches; Private Collection

“John Brent was Buffalos first African American Architect," said Christine Parker, graduate student at SUNY Buffalo State.

The smallest details can uncover the grandest stories. Gates 3 and 4 at the Zoo were likely one of the factors that led Parker to dig up facts  and  share Brent’s story.

“John Brent had a place in my childhood," said Parker.

The grandson of a freed slave, Brent played a role in designing some prominent local structures, including the former Michigan Avenue Branch YMCA.  He was also active in some influential organizations. Yet, Brent’s name is unknown to most local residents.

Parker is determined to change that. She’s curator of an exhibit at the Burchfield Penney Art Center that showcase’s Brent’s life and achievements. As Parker walks through her Brent exhibit at the Burchfield Penney, his story comes to life.

“John Brent is born, then shortly thereafter here comes the Progressive Era. John Brent was born to a middle class family. His Father Calvin Thomas Stowe Brent was D.C’s first African American Architect," noted Parker.

Education is commonly referred to as a pathway to success, but for African Americans in the late 1800's it was necessary for survival. Dr. Barbara Seals Nevergold, co-founder of the Uncrowned Queens and Uncrowned Community Builders, said Brent would have likely been made to go to school by his family.

“They found ways to keep black people from being educated, but the value of education and the fire that burned for most black people was there. So, there was a push that the children be educated," Seals Nevergold explained.

Brent was no stranger to hard work. His immediate family was full of leaders, including physicians and educators. His father Calvin was a highly recognized architect in D.C., and his grandfather worked diligently to gain his emancipation. Dr. Lillian Williams, professor of transnational studies at the University at Buffalo, reflects on the conditions Brent faced as an African American.

“He came at a time when the black community was plagued by so many issues. Jim Crow was well established at that point. It had come into existence legally through the Supreme Court decision Plessy vs. Ferguson 1896, and blacks found themselves disfranchised throughout the country," stated Williams.

When Brent was 15, he went to Tuskegee Institute for architectural education.  After two years, he received a scholarship from Drexel Institute of Art to concentrate in architecture and landscape design. Graduating in 1912, Brent moved to Buffalo

"What made him come here? I think John wanted to make a life for himself," Parker responded.

And he certainly made his mark by designing buildings, gates, churches, homes, parks and community centers.

The exhibit illustrates that Brent’s love for his community didn't end after the ribbons were cut for grand openings of his buildings. He wanted to fight for his African American community. He did so by becoming Buffalo’s first NAACP chapter president and by designing the Michigan Avenue YMCA that largely served the black community. Williams notes that he created the first Appomattox Club, a group of African American men who were not permitted to join their unions.

Brent’s story is one of hard work, collaboration, and insight towards a better future. Although Brent’s accomplishments seem remarkable considering the circumstances of his time. Dr. Peggy Brooks-Bertram co-founder of the Uncrowned Queens and the Uncrowned Community Builder perhaps said it best.

“You can find one man, but you will be able to pair him up with another person, a women, a man who is doing something different. But the underlying structure of it is they’re African Americans, they never gave up, they supported one another, they educated themselves, they faced incredible opposition to them being anywhere or them doing anything. What I find is quite nice about Christine’s work is to be able to find the implements that he used. So that young people can walk past it, look at it and say that’s the pencil that he used, that’s the slide rule that he used, that’s the little desk that he used. Those things are very important," said Brooks-Bertram.

The exhibit at the Burchfield-Penney will continue through March 27th.