Minority architect group founded in Detroit celebrates 50 years with special exhibition

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

As the old adage goes, "It's hard to be what you can't see," but Tiffany Brown of Detroit never let that stop her. Still, it wasn't until she was a sophomore at Lawrence Technological University roughly 20 years ago, pursuing a degree in architecture, that she finally met a Black architect.

Brown wants to change that narrative for other aspiring architects of color. As the executive director of the National Organization of Minority Architects — founded in Detroit 50 years ago this year — Brown said part of the group's mission is to expose more kids to the profession and boost awareness.

"We’ve crossed a lot of milestones," said Brown, who still lives in Detroit. "We’ve become the go-to entity of firms or universities that want to become diverse."

"Say It Loud: NOMA's 50th Exhibition" inside the Robert and Mary Ann Bury Community Gallery at the Detroit Historical Museum pays tribute to the 50th anniversary of the National Organization of Minority Architects. It was founded by 12 Black architects in 1971 at the American Institute of Architects convention in Detroit.

The group is celebrating its half-century milestone with a new exhibition, "Say It Loud: NOMA 50th Exhibition," that opened to the public Sunday at the Detroit Historical Museum. It explores how the organization has evolved over the last five decades, highlighting architects of color and their projects.

Brown said representation is so important in architecture and design needs to happen "with a community," not for it.

NOMA was founded in 1971 after civil rights leader Whitney M. Young Jr., executive director of the National Urban League, famously called out the architecture profession at the American Institute of Architects national conference in Detroit one year after the 1967 riots.

Tiffany Brown, a Detroit native, is the executive director of the National Organization of Minority Architects. She said representation matters in architecture. Less than 2% of all architects are Black, Indigenous or people of color.

"You are not a profession that has distinguished itself by your social and civic contributions to the cause of civil rights," said Young at that 1968 conference. "You are most distinguished by your thunderous silence and your complete irrelevance."

Founded four years later by 12 Black architects, it has 3,000 members today and 35 professional chapters. But there's still work to be done, said Brown. Minority architects represent less than 2% of all architects. Black women such as Brown make up less than half of 1%.

"We are behind the eight ball on the number of licensed Black architects," said Brown.

The exhibition, which has been in the works for more than a year, highlights the work of more than 50 minority architects, detailing specific projects. There's also a unique audio visual component.

Tracy Irwin, chief exhibitions and enrichment officer at the Detroit Historical Society, said having the NOMA exhibition at the Detroit Historical Museum was a "no brainer" given that they already have the "Detroit 67" exhibit. She said they've "really made a concerted effort" to explore events and organizations that happened or were inspired by what happened in Detroit in 1967.

"NOMA really did come out of the events of '67 and it's just the perfect fit," said Irwin, who said the "Detroit 67" exhibit is adjacent to it. "...It just seems like a perfect story to tell at the right time."

The exhibition, which runs through Jan. 9, features a few artifacts, including a unique wooden walking staff handed down from president to president of NOMA. There's also a timeline and details about projects by certain members. 'Say It Loud" is curated by Beyond the Built Environment, a group that works to address inequitable disparities in architecture.

"This organization serves as a voice to encourage this in school, encourage it as a career choice," said Irwin. 


'Say It Loud: NOMA 50th Exhibition'

Until Jan. 9

Inside the Robert and Mary Ann Bury Community Gallery at the Detroit Historical Museum.

Go to https://detroithistorical.org/detroit-historical-museum/exhibitions/special-exhibitions/say-it-loud-noma-50th-exhibition.