Civil Rights Tour: Employment - John Lankford, Architect

1239 Girard Street NW

John Anderson Lankford (1874-1946) broke barriers when he put his stamp on Washington’s built environment begining in the early 20th century. At the same time, he promoted racial progress through various efforts including founding the Washington, DC branch of the National Negro Business League. How to achieve equality was a sometimes rancorous debate, and although W.E.B. DuBois and others espoused radical action, Lankford and many others preached diligence and patience.

Born on his family’s farm in Missouri, Lankford attended Lincoln University, Tuskegee Institute, and Wilburforce University, among other institutions, earning degrees in the sciences, mechanics, and law, while also studying architecture. He arrived in Washington in 1902 when he was hired to complete the design and supervise construction of the Washington headquarters of the Richmond-based United Order of True Reformer at 1200 U Street NW. This commission jump-started his Washington architectural career, leading him to become one of the most prominent African American architects of his time. While Lankford practiced architecture throughout his lifetime, he also pursued other business and professional interests.

In 1905, Lankford spearheaded the organization of the DC branch of the National Negro Business League, a self-help association first established five years earlier by Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee Institute while Lankford was a student there. The establishment of the group emanated from Booker T. Washington’s belief that the key to social equality lay in economic development and was consistent with Lankford’s own interest in pursuing racial equality.

When D.C.’s newly appointed Board of Architects established a licensing system in late 1924, Lankford became the first African American architect to be licensed here. Lankford and his wife Charlotte lived in several different houses in the greater U Street and Columbia Heights neighborhoods throughout their District residency. From about 1920 to 1928, they resided at 1448 Q Street NW; they then lived at 1750 S Street until the late 1930s, when they moved to 1261 Irving (demolished). By 1940 they occupied the house at 1239 Girard Street NW until Lankford's death in 1946.