Presenting Sharon Egretta Sutton @ Part W's Gold

Students storming the ledge outside the office of Columbia University during their 1968 protest.

Students storming the ledge outside the office of Columbia University during their 1968 protest.

For the last few months I have been engaged in a project to find and give visibility to female architects of colour. The search started as a tweet. Following that call out to the twittersphere, I was introduced to the work of Sharon Egretta Sutton, whom I later nominated for the Alternative Gold Medal, a fabulous initiative by Part W.

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Subsequently I was then invited to present Sharon Egratta Sutton as one of 10 nominee’s at Part W’s LFA event ‘Gold’. What an honour to present this incredible woman to a new audience.

Thank you for the invitation Part W:

From the cover of Sharon Egretta Sutton’s, when Ivory Towers were black

From the cover of Sharon Egretta Sutton’s, when Ivory Towers were black

My talk was based loosely on Sharon Sutton’s book, ‘When Ivory Towers We Black, and a recent interview, conducted with her via zoom last month. An instructive read, the book tells the story of how a cohort of largely black and hispanic students received a free Ivy League education, it beings in 1968, as did the ttalk:

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking before crowd of 25,000 Selma To Montgomery, Alabama civil rights marchers, in front of Montgomery, Alabama state capital building. On March 25, 1965 in Montgomery, Alabama. (Photo by Stephen F. Somerstein/Getty Images)

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking before crowd of 25,000 Selma To Montgomery, Alabama civil rights marchers, in front of Montgomery, Alabama state capital building. On March 25, 1965 in Montgomery, Alabama. (Photo by Stephen F. Somerstein/Getty Images)

1968, the year of Martin Luther King’s Death; the year race riots swept America; and the year students staged sit ins in the University of Columbia, uncomfortable at the university’s relationship with surrounding largley poor black and hispanic communities, the students demanded that black and hispanic students be admitted to the university, as a condition of giving the buildings back.

At that time Sharon Sutton was a French Horn player, perhaps the first black female french horn player in a union in America; this was a woman of many firsts.

Then a part time interior design student, she was invited to study architecture at Columbia. She says of her time at Columbia that the she and her cohort saw ‘Architecture as the Revolution’ and thought they ‘could change the World’; She would go on to put that free Ivy League education to good use, trying to do just that, making her career about social justice and becoming only the 12th Black woman to become an architect in the US.

Let’s just think about that, at this point in time, as we speak, there are still only in the region of 450 Black Female Architects in America out of over 100, 000 in total. 450. For that alone, for achieving that within this context, I believe she deserves the nomination, but in addition to that Sharon Sutton has 5 degrees, including her in PhD, which was in psychology. In 1994, she would go on to become the first black woman to become a full professor of architecture in America. For these achievements I nominate her for the year 1994, the year in which she got her professorship.

Sharon Sutton’s career was not about, towers or iconic buildings, in fact she consciously rejected this type of work; in a interview with the dean of Harvard, when looking for a place to do her PhD, as he talked about towers, she would tell him, ‘ I don’t want to be up there - I want to be down here, with the people’. Sharon Sutton has dedicated her career to social justice and activism.

There are many other things from our interview that stick in my mind and one of them is this:

She asks of architects ‘How long can we continue to walk by the homeless sleeping in the streets and just pretend it’s just business as usual?’

How long indeed?… I give you Sharon Egretta Sutton.

This talk was based on extracts from an interview I look forward to sharing soon.

The project to find and share the stories of Female Architects of Colour continues…find out more at XXAOC.

Sarah Akigbogun

Director Studio Aki