National Organization of Minority Architects

Pascale Sablan


A History of NOMA

African American architects listened intently to what Whitney M. Young, Jr., the prominent civil rights leader and keynote speaker, had to say. He reminded those present that as a profession, architecture had not distinguished itself by its social and civic contributions to the civil rights movement. The black architects in attendance that day had come from different parts of the country and did not know each other very well, but were all struck by the speaker’s words and recognized that the situation of the black architect had to be improved.  

Three years later, in 1971, the black architects in attendance at the American Institute of Architects (AIA) National Convention in Detroit decided to organize to change the status quo. A local African American architect invited them to his office, where they had a chance to meet each other informally and discuss the desperate need for an organization dedicated to the development and advancement of black architects. The thirty or so present at that meeting included some black architecture students who were anxious to meet the visiting black architects. These professionals recognized the desperate need for an organization dedicated to the development and advancement of African American architects.

Prior to this time, there had been two other professional organizations that supported black architects: the National Technical Organization, established in 1926, and the Council for the Advancement of the Negro in Architecture, which ran from 1951–57. But new times required new methods.  

Present at the Detroit meeting were William Brown, Leroy Campbell, Wendell Campbell, John S. Chase, James C. Dodd, Kenneth B. Groggs, Nelson Harris, Jeh Johnson, E.H. McDowell, Robert J. Nash, Harold Williams, Robert Wilson, and Robert Coles.

A cruise to the Bahamas a few months later brought together twelve of the founders and their wives together for the group’s second meeting. Starting then, the wives would play a crucial role in running the organization through their support of their husbands’ assignments.

A few weeks later, a third meeting convened in Chicago. It was there that the membership voted to accept the organization’s constitution as drawn up by Harold Williams and Jeh Johnson. These African American architects wanted black design professionals to work together to fight discriminatory policies that limited or barred minority architects from participating in design and construction programs.

At early meetings, the members discussed topics like how to lobby Washington representatives to get black architects included in new legislation concerning work on federal projects, how to get AIA recognition for those most prominent among them (i.e. Paul Williams and Howard Mackey), and how to create their own design awards.  

That was the beginning of the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA), an increasingly influential voice promoting the quality and excellence of minority design professionals. There are NOMA Chapters in all parts of the country, increasing recognition on colleges and university campuses and providing greater access to government policy makers.

The first NOMA president was Wendell Campbell, followed by several of the other founders. Some who were not president, such as Robert Coles, who started the organization’s newsletter, served as vice president or in other offices. Over time, some of the NOMA founders and officers also served in AIA positions.

In 1996, Cheryl McAfee of Atlanta, Georgia, became the first female president, followed by Roberta Washington, from New York, in 1997. From 2013–14, NOMA ran under the leadership of its third female president, Kathy Dixon.

NOMA today champions diversity within the design professions by promoting the excellence, community engagement, and professional development of its members. It thrives only when voluntary members contribute their time and resources to furthering the organization’s mission—to build a strong national organization, strong chapters, and strong members to minimize the effect of racism in the profession. Strength in NOMA is built through unity in the cause that created the organization.

Through its publications and conferences, NOMA demonstrates that minority professionals have the talent and capabilities to perform in design and construction with any other group. By building strong chapters of design professionals whose sensibilities and interests include promotion of urban communities, NOMA is able to respond to the concerns that affect marginalized communities and people. Local chapters give members a base in which to become involved in politics, to visit schools and reach out to children, to conduct community and civic forums, and to responsibly practice in our professional capacities.

Pascale Sablan, AIA, NOMA, LEED AP, is a Senior Associate at S9 ARCHITECTURE, the 2017–18 historian for the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA), and the NOMA Northeast Now What!? Exhibition Planning Grant 18 Regional Vice President for 2018–19. Pascale is past president of the New York Chapter of NOMA, serves the AIA National Planning Committee for the 2018 Design Justice Summit, and is a member of the AIA’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee. Pascale was selected as a 2018 AIA Young Architects Award Recipient and was featured in the CTBUH Research Paper: “Ratios - Voices of Women in the Tall Building World.” She was recently named Building Design + Construction 40 Under 40 and was featured on the cover of the September issue of their magazine. She has lectured at universities and colleges all over the US. In 2017 she curated the Say It Loud: Distinguished Black Designers of NYCOBA | NOMA exhibition at the Center for Architecture in New York City. She is the 315th African American female architect in the United States to attain her architectural license. As of 2017, there are only 400 women who hold this distinction.