Buffalo's First Professional African-American Architect: Some Preliminary Findings
In the New York State census of 1925, John E. Brent reported his age as 33, making his year of birth around 1892. According to a biographical profile of him in the Buffalo American, which does not reveal his age, Brent was born and raised in Washington, D.C. He entered Tuskegee Institute in 1904, graduating with an architecture degree in 1907. After two years as a schoolteacher in Washington, he entered the School of Architecture at Drexel Institute and graduated in 1912 at the ripe age of 20. Brent then moved to Buffalo, NY. Further research is needed to confirm this apparent precocity.
The unsigned article in Buffalo American goes on to list the architectural firms which employed Brent between 1912 and 1926: Max G. Beierl; H. Osgood Holland; Waterbury & Mann; Julius E. Schultz; North Shelgren & Swift; Oakley & Schallmore. While in the employ of Holland, Brent worked on the Hutchinson High School plans. While in the employ of Waterbury & Mann, he worked on plans for the Wanakah Country Club.
In 1926, John E. Brent became the second African-American to design a "colored" YMCA, Buffalo's Michigan Avenue YMCA. It opened in April 1928 and became the cultural center of Buffalo's African-American community. It cost $200,000 to build, half of which was donated by Buffalonian George Matthews. It boasted a cafeteria, gymnasium, swimming pool, barber shop, tailor shop, library; and classrooms, locker rooms, dormitory rooms, and billiard tables. It was demolished in April 1977.
Lillian Serece Williams wrote extensively about the significance of the Michigan Avenue YMCA in Buffalo's African American community in her book, Strangers in the Land of Paradise (1999).
Eva Noles, in Talking Proud: Buffalo's Blacks (1986), attributes another building to Brent: Dr. Myron McGuire's dentist office. Post-war city directories for Buffalo show a Dr. Myron McGuire at 482 Jefferson Avenue.
Upon winning the commission for the Michigan Avenue YMCA, Brent opened his own practice, and may have been self-employed from 1926 into the 1950s, when Buffalo City Directories list him as an architect with the Buffalo Parks Department. No other buildings have been attributed to him at this point.
Brent remained involved with the Michigan Ave. YMCA, serving as a board member and fundraiser. He was also a founding member of the Buffalo chapter of the NAACP, serving as its first president. Later he served on the Local Council of the State Commission Against Discrimination.
Brent lived at 219 Glenwood Avenue with his wife Neeton, and was active in St. Philip's Episcopal Church, earning the Bishop's Medal for meritorious service. He died on October 27, 1962, and is buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery, Section 37, Lot 94.
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Hasauer, Kenneth. The Second Fifty Years: A History of the Young Men's Christian Association of Buffalo and Erie County, 1902-1952. Buffalo, NY: YMCA, .
Noles, Eva. Buffalo's Blacks: Talking Proud. Buffalo, NY: Eva M. Noles, 1986.
Twenty Years in the Service of Youth: The Michigan Avenue YMCA. Buffalo, NY: Young Men's Christian Association, 1943
Who's Who in Colored America. New York: [various publishers], 1927-1944, 1950.
Who's Who of the Colored Race. Chicago, IL: Frank Lincoln Mather, 1915.
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"John E. Brent, Second Negro Architect of the United States to Have Charge of Building 'Y' for Colored Men." Buffalo American, May 4, 1926: page unknown. Preserved in Local Biographies scrapbook," v.4, p. 165, Special Collections Department of the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library (BECPL).
Locke, Henry. "Blacks Should Mourn Michigan Ave. 'Y' Loss. Buffalo Courier-Express, April 17, 1977: F-9.
"Michigan Ave. 'Y' Has Vital Role in City." Buffalo Courier-Express, July 19, 1953: 20-A.
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Michigan Avenue Branch:
Special thanks to Sharon Holley for supplying Brent's date of death and burial place.
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