He was born and raised on his parents’ farm in Potosi, Missouri, one of eleven children of former slaves Philip Anderson Lankford and Nancy Ella Johnson Lankford. His paternal grandfather was Rev. Philip Andrew Lankford; his paternal line can be traced back to the 1600s in France and to 1645 in Albemarle County, Virginia.
After attending public schools in Potosi, Lankford worked in Crystal City, Missouri, in a plate glass factory. From 1889 to 1896, he attended Lincoln Institute (now Lincoln University) in Jefferson City, Missouri. He worked as a janitor to earn money for his books. He also worked at the Plymouth Rock Pants Company in order to earn money for his clothes and at a steam laundry in order to get his laundry cleaned.
Lankford was invited by Booker T. Washington to attend Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. First, between his time at Lincoln and Tuskegee, he worked in a blacksmith shop in St. Louis. To pay his board at Tuskegee, where he took chemistry and physics classes between 1896 and 1898, Lankford worked in a foundry and steam-fitting department and as an amateur photographer. Lankford received a B.S. from Shaw University in 1898, where he later taught from 1900 to 1902. Here he met his wife, Charlotte Josephine Turner Upshaw. She was the granddaughter of Bishop Henry McNeal Turner.
Following his time at Shaw, Lankford received several Masters Degrees, a law degree, and, later in life, numerous honorary degrees. Professor Lankford came to Washington, D.C. in July 1902 with a commission to design and supervise the construction of a new hall for the Grand United Order of the True Reformers. True Reformers Hall was a stately, five-story brick building notable for its arched, 18-foot windows and ornamental frieze. The building was considered remarkable because it was financed, designed, and built entirely by African-Americans.
John Anderson Lankford died in 1946 and has the distinction of being the first African-American architect in the United States with an established architectural office.