Ethel Furman

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Dates of Birth and Death

July 6, 1893-February 24, 1976


  • Chicago Technical College, 1940s

Years of practice

1921–1965 (estimated)


Richmond, Virginia, residential


Early life and education

Born in 1893, Ethel Madison Bailey Carter Furman is listed as the first African American architect in the state of Virginia. Evidently, ground breaking achievements ran in her family; Furman’s father Madison J. Bailey was the second licensed black contractor in the city of Richmond. Ethel began her formal architectural education with a private tutor in New York arranged by her father. Private tutoring was an educational route that women chose to pursue in order to overcome gender discrimination. She later attended Chicago Technical College. Although she started her training in 1915, she finished it many years later after having raised a family.

Career in Architecture

In 1927, Furman was the only woman to attend the Negro Contractor’s Conference at Hampton Institute. She worked in partnership with her father while also raising three children and holding a variety of other jobs to supplement her family’s income. Furman overcame the bias she faced as a black woman by submitting building plans to local administrators through the male contractors she worked with.

Major Buildings and Projects

Furman is credited with designing more than 200 buildings including the childhood home of former governor of Virginia, Douglas Wilder – the first elected post reconstruction-era black governor in the US.  She also designed several Richmond churches including St. James Holiness Church (completed in 1939) and two churches in Liberia. While most of her buildings have been demolished, her most significant surviving work is an educational wing for the Fourth Baptist Church in Richmond, which was built in the International style (1962). In 2000, the wing was recognized on the National Register of Historic Places as part of the Church Hill North Historic District extension.

Press and Awards

Furman was active in the Richmond community; she received the Walter Manning Citizenship Award and was named to the Richmond Afro-American’s Community Honor Roll in 1954 and 1959. She was recognized for her extensive civic work by the Richmond Afro-American in 1958. In 1985, a small city park was dedicated to her memory in Richmond.