Empowered by History

Looking back intentionally to move forward

Empowered by History

Thoughts
John B Johnson
a small studio
By 
June 19, 2024

"Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,"

When I was 17, I decided I wanted to be an architect. I think we can all empathize with how special a moment like this can be for a teenager. After 12 years of school, I finally knew what I wanted to be when I grew up and I was excited to tell anyone that cared to listen!

Unfortunately, this proud memory shares space with an unfortunate memory of ignorance. Imagine me at 17 with a big smile on my face as I tell you that I am going to be an architect. Now imagine that your response was, "Why would you want to do that? There are no black architects. You won't make it." This, along with countless similar responses, came mostly from people who looked like me and a few who did not.

Actually, they couldn't have been more ignorant. It wasn't their fault that they didn't know their history. That one of the first black architects in the country operated right in downtown Cleveland. Most of us didn't know this. I didn’t know this. Regardless, as a teenager hearing those words, I couldn't help but feel discouraged and incapable. "Was I an idiot for pursuing such a dream?" I'd consistently ask myself this very question.

My response has always been the same throughout my life: "Maybe, but why not?"

This simple question has been a staple for me and can be tied back to every moment I've experienced success. I've never let ignorance, my own or others, stop me from pursuing something I felt called to do. From getting my master's degree in architecture at Kent State University to proposing to my wife and mother of my children, I would not be the man I am today if I had listened to ignorance. Instead, I've used my personal, familial, and cultural history to empower my approach to decision-making in an age of ignorance.

"Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us.”

One of the main reasons I decided to move back to Cleveland after 10 years was in response to that ignorance I experienced at 17. I wanted to make sure that ignorance was no longer an excuse. It would be impossible to speak those words that I heard because they would know their history. For instance, as soon as I moved back, my mentor, Justin Hilton, introduced me to his mentor, Robert P Madison. If you don't know, Robert P Madison was the first black architect in Ohio, and 70 years later, Robert P Madison International is the only black female-led architecture firm in Ohio. They have also designed some of the most iconic pieces of architecture in Cleveland.

Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse by Robert P. Madison International

Stories like Robert Madison's need to be shared more because these stories can and have empowered many generations of black architects to pursue their dreams because someone paved the way ahead of them. My mentor and I both graduated as the only black person in our class. Robert P Madison empowers us to accomplish such a thing.

Juneteenth represents the day 'every' enslaved African American was liberated in the United States of America. I use it as an opportunity to remember those who came before me, like Robert Madison, to liberate every aspect of who I am so that I can live fully as I am. What a privilege that is. I will never take that privilege for granted and I encourage all of you to do the same.

For each of you, the history of liberation may look a little different; however, if each of you takes a moment to think of one person who paved your way for liberation, you may have a more relevant and personal understanding of this holiday.

You may also realize that we can do nothing on our own. Everything we create today is a product of many yesterdays.

“Facing a rising sun of our new day begun, Let us march on till victory is won.”

a small studio celebrates Juneteenth, not only as a black-owned creative studio but also as a studio built on the sacrifices of those who came before us. A responsibility we do not take lightly and will never use our privilege for selfish gain. This is why our mission stands the test of time as we continue to empower creative leaders to use their gifts to bring peace.

I leave you with the words of James Weldon Johnson, who used his gifts to bring peace in many ways. Let the Black National Anthem vibrate through your soul today as you celebrate liberation.

Lift Every Voice and Sing- James Weldon Johnson

Lift every voice and sing,
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the listening skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.
Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chastening rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat,
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered.
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past,
Till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.
God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who hast brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who hast by Thy might,
Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,
Lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee;
Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand,
True to our God,
True to our native land.

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