J. W. Robinson was a practicing architect in Atlanta for more than thirty years, as well as an educator and mentor to African American architects and other professionals. In 1995 he became the first African American architect from Georgia to be elevated to fellowship in the American Institute of Architects (AIA). Robinson’s work included historic preservation in the Sweet Auburn and Martin Luther King Jr. historic districts of Atlanta, and he was a charter member of the National Organization of Minority Architects.
Joseph W. Robinson was born on November 25, 1927, in Hartsville, South Carolina, to Mary Robinson Frazier and Jasper Robinson, and he attended public schools in Georgetown, South Carolina. He graduated from Hampton Institute in Virginia in 1949 with a bachelor of science degree in architecture, and in that same year, attracted by post-World War II (1941-45) opportunities, he moved to Atlanta, where he studied at Atlanta University (later Clark Atlanta University). Denied employment in his chosen field of architecture because of segregation, Robinson became a public school teacher. During his fifteen-year tenure at Booker T. Washington High School (1953-68) he introduced such new subjects as descriptive geometry and inspired his students to enter the field of architecture.
In addition to teaching, Robinson developed a practice in residential architecture, helping to reshape communities in Atlanta in a time of segregation. A license was not necessary to work on houses, and he designed more than 200 houses, addressing the problem of segregated public facilities through the development of large recreational spaces that allowed residents to host public gatherings in the privacy of their own homes. After several years of work under an established architect in the 1960s, Robinson obtained his license, and in 1970 he established his own firm, which became J. W. Robinson & Associates, Inc. One of his first projects was the design of Fire Station #38 on Bankhead Highway, for which he received an award from the Atlanta chapter of the AIA.
Among the Robinson firm’s achievements were many public projects, such as the swimming pool at Grant Park and a municipal garage; community centers, including the Martin Luther King, Drew Park, and Adamsville Park community buildings; and public housing, including Azalea Gardens and Perry Homes community buildings. Educational facilities for which the firm received awards include elementary and secondary schools (Southside Comprehensive High School), and college and university buildings (the Robert W. Woodruff Library at Clark Atlanta University, and the John H. Lewis Health, Physical Education, and Recreation Building at Morris Brown College). Robinson’s large body of work also includes several Atlanta churches, libraries, and banks, and his clients included such large corporations as BellSouth (later AT&T), Delta Air Lines, and the Atlanta Life Insurance Company.
Robinson’s leadership in the field of architecture is notable in the role he played in two of Atlanta’s first minority/majority joint venture projects, Concourses C and D, and the shell for the MARTA station at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, as well as the Ashby Street MARTA station. For the airport project, a group of African American architects formed the Minority Airport Architects and Planners, with Robinson as president. The organization included Leon Allain, William McDuffie, and Louis Fry. In 1992 Robinson designed the C. B. King U.S. Federal Courthouse in Albany. (Named for prominent civil rights attorney C. B. King, the courthouse was completed in 2002.)
Robinson’s leadership among African American architects included an early interest in preserving places that represent the cultural life and accomplishments of African Americans. At a time when historic preservation was not the expected community-development process in Black neighborhoods, Robinson was instrumental in preserving the Martin Luther King Jr. Birthplace and other buildings of the Martin Luther King Jr. and Sweet Auburn historic districts. Among his historic building rehabilitation projects are the Odd Fellows Building and Big Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church on Auburn Avenue, and Friendship Baptist Church. He also worked with the preservation architect Lane Greene on the historic Morton Theatre in Athens.
Robinson was married to Willie Louise Robinson and had three children: Joseph W. Jr., Jeffrey L., and Janice. In May 2007 his son Jeffrey became the president of J. W. Robinson & Associates, Inc., and his son Joseph W. Jr. became the company’s construction administration manager.
Robinson died in Atlanta at the age of eighty on September 14, 2008. His legacy includes not only his many buildings but also the younger architects he inspired and encouraged throughout his career.