The Milwaukee Common Council unanimously approved renaming the fire department headquarters the Alonzo Robinson Milwaukee Fire Department Administration Building on Tuesday, 02/09/21, which council members say will honor Robinson’s legacy of contributions, hard work and dedication to the city for decades. Success in the face of adversity during a time when others like him were judged, discriminated against – and often worse – purely based on the color of their skin.
You see, Robinson was black. In fact, Robinson was the first Black architect registered in Wisconsin, and the city. His children say their father never wanted to hold that title for as long as he did, let alone starting a career in the white-dominated architecture field in the 1950s. Even today, challenges remain to seeing people of color advance in the fields of architecture and engineering. "She said, ‘Tell him he worked really, really hard, and all the time,’" said Robinson’s daughter, Jean, who serves as a go-between for her mother, Theresa, who has trouble speaking after having several strokes.
Alonzo Robinson was born in Asheville, North Carolina in 1923. His family moved to Delaware when he was a young boy. Robinson attended Delaware State University, studying mathematics and playing basketball until he was drafted into the U.S. Army during World War II. After the war, Theresa and Alonzo met and were married. Alonzo graduated from Howard University in 1951 with an architecture degree. In 1954, he moved to Milwaukee to work for the City Bureau of Bridges and Public Buildings. In 1956, Robinson became the first and only Black licensed architect in the state. He later went on to become a partner in the private Waukesha firm of DeQuardo, Robinson and Crouch. He also went on to open his own practice in Milwaukee, with the hope his sons Wayne and Ronald, who died in 2015, would follow in his footsteps. Both Ronald and Wayne worked for a time doing drafting and design work for their father.
In addition to the Wells Street fire station, Robinson designed a number of churches, homes and buildings throughout the city. Such work, per Robinson’s own notes, include the Kosciuszko Community Center, 2201 S. 7th; Central City Plaza, 6th and Walnut; and Church of the Living God, 3653 N. Teutonia.
A lay reader of St. James United Methodist Church and founding member of Northcott Neighborhood House, Robinson eventually retired from Milwaukee County in 1998. He died in 2000 after a five-year battle with cancer. He fell ill while on a church conference trip shortly after receiving his final chemotherapy treatment.
Of more than 116,000 registered architects in the U.S. today, only 2% identify as Black or African American, according to the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards. Wilson, who is involved with the state’s National Organization of Minority Architects, estimates there are five or six licensed Black architects in the state, today. When Wilson moved to Milwaukee, he says Robinson’s presence was a welcome one. "There’s a kind of a kindred spirit between Black architects because there’s so few of us and you can imagine there were even less at the time than there are now," said Wilson. "We have several states where we still don’t have Black architects."
Milwaukee Fire Department Administration Building to be named in honor of Alonzo Robinson
Common Council OKs renaming MFD HQ in honor of Alonzo Robinson
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