David Augustus Williston was the first professionally trained African American landscape architect in the United States. During his career, Williston was an educator and practiced landscape architecture -- as a designer and campus planner for many historically black institutions. Between the years of 1910 to 1929, Williston taught horticulture at the Tuskegee Institute, while simultaneously overseeing the development of the campus as the superintendent of buildings and grounds.
Williston and George Washington Carver collaborated on the landscape design around Booker T. Washington’s house [known as The Oaks]. Washington was Tuskegee’s first president. The Tuskegee Institute and portions of the campus, which contain many of Williston’s original landscape designs, were designated a National Historic Site. Williston also collaborated with Cornell-trained, African American architect Albert Cassell, on Howard University’s campus expansion, following World War I.
Born in 1868, in Fayetteville, North Carolina, during the Reconstruction era, Williston was the second of twelve “children in a supportive and educated middle-class family.”(1) As a child, his interest in horticulture began when Williston grew flowers from a garden scheme he created. In 1895, Williston enrolled at Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and became the first African American student to obtain a bachelor’s degree for the discipline. He acquired an additional degree in municipal engineering from the International Correspondence School in Pennsylvania. Upon graduation, Williston taught at the State College of North Carolina at Greensboro in 1898.
His affiliation with the Tuskegee Institute [now Tuskegee University], began in 1902. Williston was initially hired as a professor of horticulture and taught there intermittently for 27 years. Williston based his campus design work on the English landscape style. A school of thought which favored picturesque and irregular compositions in plant massing and landforms.
In 1930, Williston moved to Washington, D.C., and established the first African American owned landscape architecture firm in the United States. While in Washington, Williston completed the site planning and landscape design for the Langston Terrace Housing Project. The commission completed between 1935 and 1938, it was the first federally funded housing project in the city.
He worked into his 90s, passing away in 1962 at the age of 94. During his lifetime, Williston never experienced full integration; however, there are still remnants of his work that preserve his essential legacy.
(1) Source: The Cultural Landscape Foundation