Black History Month: Community Trailblazers

Samuel Plato Share

Feb 5, 2024  |  Web Administrator

Samuel M. Pla­to (18821957) was a promi­nent African-Amer­i­can archi­tect and builder who achieved nation­al recog­ni­tion for his imag­i­na­tive designs. He com­plet­ed his edu­ca­tion and began his career dur­ing a time when seg­re­ga­tion and racism were major obsta­cles for African-Amer­i­cans who sought to pur­sue pro­fes­sion­al careers such as architecture.

When Pla­to grad­u­at­ed from State Uni­ver­si­ty Nor­mal School in Louisville, Ken­tucky in 1902, and com­plet­ed his mail-order pro­gram in archi­tec­ture with Inter­na­tion­al Cor­re­spon­dence Schools, he became part of a small group of pio­neer­ing African-Amer­i­can archi­tects who made their mark ear­ly in the century.

Like oth­er pio­neers, Pla­to strug­gled against racism, help­ing pave the way for those who fol­lowed in his foot­steps. Dur­ing his ear­ly years in Mar­i­on, Indi­ana, he was suc­cess­ful in his fight to open up the build­ing trade unions to African-Amer­i­can work­ers. He was the first African-Amer­i­can to be award­ed a con­tract to build a post office, and was one of only a few African-Amer­i­can con­trac­tors to build fed­er­al gov­ern­ment defense hous­ing projects dur­ing World War II. Pla­to was suc­cess­ful because of his per­sis­tent efforts and because his rep­u­ta­tion for qual­i­ty and integri­ty could not be ignored.

Among the basic tenets of Pla­to’s life were his belief in help­ing oth­ers to help them­selves and his devo­tion to his fam­i­ly, which was always at the cen­ter. In 1939, he devised a plan to move his sis­ter and her fam­i­ly off the old home­stead in Waugh, Alaba­ma, into a new home near­by. Samuel and Elno­ra Pla­to (18911975) helped put sev­er­al nieces and nephews though col­lege and grad­u­ate school, and Pla­to employed some of them on jobs in Louisville and Wash­ing­ton, D.C. Elno­ra Pla­to, his sec­ond wife, was his con­stant trav­el­ing com­pan­ion and busi­ness man­ag­er. She had built her own suc­cess­ful dress­mak­ing busi­ness before their mar­riage, and she used her own funds from the enter­prise to help make Pla­to’s dreams pos­si­ble. She fund­ed the cost of his sis­ter’s new house in Waugh, and on more than one occa­sion, kept their com­pa­ny from going bankrupt.

Pla­to designed and built a wide vari­ety of build­ings, includ­ing Greek Revival and Crafts­man-style hous­es, ele­gant man­sions, post offices, banks, church­es, schools, office build­ings, the­aters, and gov­ern­ment hous­ing projects. Eight of his build­ings are list­ed on the Nation­al Reg­is­ter of His­toric places. (see wiki​mar​i​on​.org or for more information)

Dur­ing his career he was in demand as a speak­er at The Tuskegee Insti­tute and The Hamp­ton Insti­tute. He was hon­ored posthu­mous­ly in 1960 by the Howard Uni­ver­si­ty School of Engi­neer­ing and Archi­tec­ture, where he had been a spe­cial lec­tur­er. He was admired and respect­ed by every­one. Per­haps Elno­ra Pla­to summed it up best when she wrote that he was a pio­neer for years and he want­ed his busi­ness to live. Then, too, he want­ed to inspire young engineers.”

Source: https://​fil​son​his​tor​i​cal​.org/a…

Samuel Pla­to was born in Waugh, Alaba­ma, in 1882. His father was trained by a for­mer slave and car­pen­ter named Samuel Carter (Arts Indi­ana 24). Plato’s father had raised him to learn the craft of car­pen­try. To pay for col­lege and train fare to the Uni­ver­si­ty of Louisville, Pla­to carved out wood­en wash­boards, which he sold for $.25 each before head­ing off to col­lege. Pla­to ini­tial­ly want­ed to study the field of law, but soon his all-con­sum­ing inter­est was geared toward archi­tec­ture and car­pen­try. While in col­lege, he did a lot of work repair­ing cam­pus build­ings to earn tuition and board. After grad­u­at­ing, Pla­to relo­cat­ed to Mar­i­on, IN, pre­sum­ably to find work in the gas boom econ­o­my. Increas­ing num­bers of peo­ple were flood­ing the area at the time, thus, hous­es and oth­er pub­lic struc­tures need­ed to be built. In his first few years in the Mar­i­on area, how­ev­er, no con­trac­tor would hire him due to his race. His first job was refin­ish­ing the stairs and trim in an eight room house. The own­er, impressed by his top-qual­i­ty work, rec­om­mend­ed him for two more jobs at oth­er res­i­dences. From that point on, Pla­to had very lit­tle trou­ble find­ing work. Even­tu­al­ly, in the ear­ly 1920s, Pla­to returned to Louisville where he con­tin­ued his career as a pro­duc­tive, high-qual­i­ty archi­tect and crafts­man. Pla­to was the first African-Amer­i­can to be select­ed for the design­ing and con­tract­ing of fed­er­al build­ings in the Unit­ed States. He is cred­it­ed with build­ing a total of 20 post offices in New York, Jew Jer­sey, and Ken­tucky. In 1957, Samuel Pla­to died at home in Louisville.

The archi­tec­ture of Samuel Pla­to is sig­nif­i­cant for many dif­fer­ent rea­sons. The most promi­nent rea­son could be the suc­cess achieved by an African-Amer­i­can Archi­tect in the ear­ly Twen­ti­eth Cen­tu­ry. Samuel Pla­to turned to design­ing his own build­ings and pro­mot­ing him­self after being turned away from most Cau­casian-owned design and con­tract­ing com­pa­nies. Dur­ing the con­struc­tion of his build­ings, it was an unusu­al twist of fate that the very con­trac­tors which turned Pla­to down came to him seek­ing a job. Pla­to cre­at­ed suc­cess from fail­ure, which is was a daunt­ing task for any­one at the time.

Source: http://​wiki​mar​i​on​.org/​S​a​m​uel_P…,died%20at%20home%20in%20Louisville.

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