President, Roberta Washington Architects PC, New York, N.Y.
Roberta Washington once dreamed of becoming an architect, only she never saw any African-American architects until she met one at age 13. She remembers him only as “Professor Gray.” “Meeting him was inspirational,” she says. There was lots of inspiration and encouragement at home as well. “My mother encouraged me to pursue any occupation I wanted, no matter how nontraditional,” says the Greensboro, S.C., native, who also credits a former art teacher, Alberta Corvington, with showing her the “importance of expression and the value of creating.”
Today, Washington is owner of the 10-person New York firm Roberta Washington Architects PC, which opened in 1983. It is the largest continuously operated female-owned, African-American architecture firm in the country. Washington is used to “firsts.” She is the first American to work for the postindependence government of Mozambique, for example. And she and/or her firm have worked on countless major projects—from the Jazz and Negro Baseball Hall of Fame in Kansas City to renovating 50 abandoned townhouses and apartment buildings in Harlem to designing a new eight-story, 128-unit condo unit in Central Harlem to a new subway station in Brooklyn. Many of the firm’s earliest projects were conceived for populations with special needs, including housing for adults with AIDS and a project to help unite former female prison inmates with their children.
Washington, who earned a bachelor’s degree in architecture from Howard University and a master’s in the same subject (with emphasis on hospital and health-facility design) from Columbia University, tries to live by the words of Calvin Coolidge: “Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not. Nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not. Unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not. The world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”