Updates from ASLA


Celebrating the Life of Robert Lee Davis, Black Landscape Architect

Robert Lee Davis and Davis Family. From left to right: Mr. Davis, older daughter Fath Davis Ruffins, wife Myrtle, and younger daughter Brenda Jones / Robert Lee Davis Family Archive

By Glenn LaRue Smith, FASLA

Robert Lee Davis, African American landscape architect, died at the age of 104 on November 13, 2023. I was privileged to meet and interview Mr. Davis in 2021 at his residence in northeast Washington, DC. His daughter discovered the Black Landscape Architects Network (BlackLAN) and contacted me to discuss her father’s career. This initiated a journey of discovery about Mr. Davis’ life and unique career in public service. It was fortuitous that BlackLAN was incorporated as a nonprofit organization just one year before this meeting, providing the opportunity meet Mr. Davis.

According to the memorial program, Mr. Davis “was born on July 27, 1919, in Franklin, Virginia to Gordon and Henrietta Davis. He graduated from Virginia State University in 1942 where he pledged Omega Psi Phi [Fraternity]. He was drafted into the Army in World War II and honorably served in the Quartermaster Corp in the European theater, where among other things, he observed the battles on the Normandy beaches. After the war, he obtained a Master of Landscape Architecture degree from the University of Wisconsin in 1949, joining a tiny group of less than ten African American Landscape Architects then working in the entire nation…He was named a professor of horticulture at Prairie View Agricultural and Mechanical College (now University) from 1949 to 1957.”

Prior to his appointment at Prairie View, he did additional study at Cornell University and received a landscape architecture certificate. In addition, he began a Ph.D. program in horticulture at the Iowa State University of Science and Technology. Due to illness, he was unable to continue his Ph.D. studies.

The late Honorable John Lewis of Georgia honored Mr. Davis with a statement that was entered into the 116th Congressional Record on July 25, 2019, celebrating Davis’ 100th birthday. In this statement, Representative Lewis noted that Davis was “painfully familiar with the challenges of legalized segregation and racial discrimination growing up as a young boy.”

Representative Lewis’ notes that “the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development recruited Mr. Davis to Washington, D.C. to serve as an assistant director of planning and as a city planner for the D.C. Public Housing Authority under Walter Washington, the future and first home-rule mayor of D.C. Mr. Davis later joined the federal government as a Foreign Service [Embassy Division] officer responsible for the landscape architecture of all the embassies around the world. He traveled to nearly every continent on the globe and gained a deep appreciation for international cultures and peoples. He retired from the Department of State [Embassy Division] after 25 years of outstanding service.” Read the full statement: page 1 and page 2.

Robert Lee Davis at Taj Mahal, IndiaRobert Lee Davis at Taj Mahal, India / Robert Lee Davis Family Archives

There is no doubt that these racial challenges followed Davis throughout his education and career. Mr. Davis related to me during our interview session that as a University of Wisconsin student he could not find housing due to discrimination. He eventually found boarding in a home owned by an African American couple. His future wife, Myrtle Bowers Davis, was also a tenant at the home during her pursuit of a Ph.D. in history at the University of Wisconsin. After completing their studies, they were married in Centerville, Maryland on July 1, 1949.

I was asked by Mr. Davis’ daughters, Brenda Jones and Fath Davis Ruffins, to deliver a statement at his Washington, D.C. Memorial service at Brightwood Park United Methodist Church, December 2, 2023. I provided my personal reflections as well as condolences from the BlackLAN Board of Directors and membership. His life and career were also acknowledged with a letter to the family from President Joseph Biden.

Mr. Davis was the oldest African American landscape architect in America prior to his death. While Davis has been missing from the history of Black landscape architects of his era such as David Williston, Edward Lyons Pryce, and Clinton Hewitt, research on his work within the State Department continues and will fill that void. Davis’ life and career, spanning a generation of discriminatory laws and practices in the United States, is a testament to his talent and perseverance, making him a model for all landscape architects, in particular Black landscape architects.

Glenn LaRue Smith, FASLA, is cofounder and principal of PUSH studio in Washington, D.C., and founder and former president of the Black Landscape Architects Network (BlackLAN). His landscape architecture projects include garden designs, urban waterfronts, community redevelopment, playgrounds and memorial monument design. He has directed graduate landscape architecture programs at two Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) — Florida A&M University and Morgan State University.

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