Before LeBron James, Cleveland, Ohio, was the butt of jokes and had to shake the stigma of being known as “the mistake by the lake.” However, the redevelopment and gentrification of Ohio’s largest urban area was boosted by an African-American designer who was denied entry into one of the city’s architectural schools in his hometown and is now the subject of a documentary produced by local filmmaker Derek Morton.
“Deeds Not Words” chronicles the life and historic accomplishments of trailblazing architect and former Howard University professor Robert Madison. Madison was given little chance to rise from poverty during Jim Crow America of the 1940s. Madison persevered through racism to leave public housing and establish Cleveland’s first Black architectural firm in 1954.
Robert P. Madison International has risen from a firm that began designing local A.M.E. churches to a family-owned architectural enterprise. They have won bids to design major civic projects, including public buildings, museums and airports. His most noteworthy design collaboration is the jewel of Cleveland’s downtown and its biggest tourist attraction, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
“These are the kind of success stories that are often overlooked and must be told,” Morton told the AFRO. “This is the true reflection from the genesis of the Civil Rights Movement until today. It’s a story about a common man from a common field making it out of very difficult circumstances to succeed.”
However, it was his mother’s prophecy that proved to be the real motivation for Madison. While nurturing the pursuit of his goal to become an architect, she prepared him in 1940 for the harsh reality he would face professionally. He was fueled by the notion that the world wasn’t ready for a Black architect at that time which helped drive him to a lifetime worth of accomplishments beyond his field.
Despite his impeccable academic credentials Madison found it difficult, initially to find work after college. He earned an undergraduate degree from Howard despite having to suspend that pursuit to serve in the Army during World War II. Madison also earned a master’s degree from Harvard but still found few opportunities available for Black architects in the mid-1940s.
Madison’s impact on the United States spans over five decades serving in the military and as an international guest lecturer before leading architectural projects around the world. He started as a decorated war hero during World War II serving in the Negro 92nd Infantry Division known as the Buffalo Soldiers. During President Richard Nixon’s second term he accompanied the American delegation speaking throughout China, sharing his perspectives on the impact of architecture on local development.
“This was a story that literally fell into my lap when I met his daughter, Juliette at yoga class,” Morton said. “I look at this more as providence more than happenstance. Stories like this I was born to tell.”
Morton went to great personal lengths to bring Madison’s story to life. The interviews were shot between Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Baltimore and he did much of the editing at his home in Prince George’s County, Md. The project, which began in 2014, has taxed his patience and his finances. He is following the path of most independent documentarians who bankroll projects for themselves, and he estimates spending $30,000 to this point.
Now, he waits for a call from one of the many film festivals around the country or around the world that are platforms for independent projects to host films coming out early next year.
“Its important for kids in America to see real examples of what hard work and dedication can provide for anybody in this country,” said Morton.