Born in Wilmington, N.C., Robert Robinson Taylor came from a middle-class family. His father, Henry, was the son of a white slave owner and a Black mother. The elder Taylor had been allowed to go into business for himself before the Civil War, building cargo ships for trade routes between the United States and South America through the Caribbean. He also built many commercial and residential edifices.
Young Taylor’s early schooling took place at the Williston School and the Gregory Institute, a school for Blacks operated and maintained by the American Missionary Association. After graduating, he worked in his father’s building trade business with his sights on Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He was admitted to the regular freshman class on September 23, 1888, although a couple of years older than the average freshman because of his work with his father.
Taylor was one of a handful of students from the South. Even the southern whites encountered prejudice but blacks even more so. Few Blacks were part of the MIT community in its early years, even though founder, William Barton Rogers, had shown a keen interest in issues relating to race.
His record at MIT during the four years he attended, 1888-1892, was above the class average; he earned honors in trigonometry, architectural history, differential calculus, and applied mechanics. he never failed a course. He was twice recommended for the Loring Scholarship, which he held for two consecutive academic years. He was the first Black person to receive an architecture degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
After graduation, he married Nellie C. Taylor and worked as an architect and educator at Tuskegee Institute nearly until the end of his career. Taylor designed Most buildings built before 1932, including the original Chapel and the library, between 1899-1902. For a short period, he was employed by a Cleveland architectural firm. Some believe he had disagreements at Tuskegee with the dictatorial style of Booker T. Washington. Though he could have been better employed elsewhere, he retired from Tuskegee in 1935.
Throughout his life, Taylor retained a deep respect for MIT. In 1942, he wrote to the secretary of his MIT class indicating that he had just been released from treatment for an unspecified illness at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN. “Thanks to a kind Providence and skillful physicians,” he said, “I am much better now.” Taylor lived his life as one of faith to his race.
Taylor collapsed and died on December 13, 1942 while attending services in the Tuskegee chapel that he had designed and considered his outstanding achievement as an architect.