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Charles Fleming, UC '61

Charles E. Fleming, AIA, UC ‘61, is the first African American to own a full-service architecture firm in Missouri and has contributed many significant projects to St. Louis and beyond. In 1965, he co-founded the Urban Housing Foundation, dedicated to ending racial discrimination in housing.

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I’ve had a chance to meet a lot of people in the architecture community and also in the construction community. I’ve been able to work in different countries, different environments, and things of that nature.

Early Days
I can remember when I started kindergarten, the first day my teacher said I was really excited about the shoes she was wearing. They were a very attractive pair of shoes, and at that time in my life, I had begun to identify things that I was interested in related to color and design. My teacher started pushing me in the various areas of art. This was the beginning of being involved in the arts.

My grandfather, Thomas Gaskin, he was an interiors person — he did a lot of wallpaper hanging and painting. I would get a chance to carry a scaffold and help him set up to do this work, and I was really excited about some of these houses that he was working in. This was the beginning of getting involved in housing.

I started at Washington University in 1955. I understand it was the first time African Americans had a chance to get in this area of education. And here I am, just out of high school, getting involved. That was exciting because I was able to learn a lot to really become an architect.

St. Louis Roots
Here in St. Louis, one of the proudest projects that I was involved in was the St. Louis Comprehensive Health Center. It’s out on Dr. Martin Luther King Drive and Belt Avenue. It’s a brick building with very strong presence in that particular community. It was designed around 1975-1980.

I’m proud of the building and the program that I got involved with that ended up producing that building. I met with homeowners in that area and also a group of folks that was supporting this new health center. They were in trailers, and I worked with them to get their funding and planning together. I went to Washington, D.C., several times for the Department of Housing and Urban Development. And we ended up getting the funds, and I was able to design the building and get it built.

The Firm
Carey Jenkins was from St. Louis. At that particular time, I didn’t have a lot of administrative experience. I thought it was an advantage to join Carey and he was pretty excited about my design capabilities. We formed the firm Jenkins-Fleming. I started working from St. Louis to Los Angeles, back and forth. And I really got involved in some very interesting projects.

Hospital in Watts
One of the projects I was involved in was the Martin Luther King, Jr. General Hospital in Watts. This was after the riots — I guess what really happened is that the need was obvious after these riots. There weren’t any medical services in the south-central LA area. I knew a lot a lot of the positions and people that we were working with when we started designing that project, getting it up and going.

I would say right around this period — after the Watts riots, the March on Washington, the civil rights movement, and Dr. King — that things began to open up for minority architects and also the construction community. We started getting more involved in various projects in the inner cities of the country.

St. Louis Public Schools
As time went on, I was involved in a lot of the educational projects in the city. I was involved with the St. Louis public school system after the judge declared that the desegregation of those particular schools had to be brought up to code. I think we worked on that whole effort for about 15 years. That particular program of renovating schools really gave us some unique experience and we were able to get involved with several school districts across the country.

Gateway National Bank
After we really got some exciting things going on, some of the professors from WashU joined us and we formed a nonprofit corporation because a lot of these community groups didn’t have money. We had to do a lot of this work. The Gateway National Bank came about through a group of investors. I was a member of this particular group and we decided that we should apply for charter and open up a bank in the Black community. We ended up getting together and were successful. This was the beginning of the African American middle class and business people being able to get involved in various commercial ventures. This bank produced a lot of good as far as getting loans in the Black community and that kind of thing.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

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Fleming Residence

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Charles Fleming in his architecture office

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Gateway National Bank

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article in Ebony magazine about the Martin Luther King Junior General Community Hospital

Stl comprehensive health center photo courtesy carestl health

St Louis Comprehensive Health Center

photo courtesy CareSTL Health

About Charles Fleming

Charles E. Fleming, AIA, graduated from WashU in 1961 in architecture from the School of Continuing & Professional Studies, formerly University College. Since then, he established a successful career in architecture as the president of the eponymous Fleming Corporation — the first African American to own a full-service architecture firm in Missouri. Fleming has designed many homes in greater St. Louis, including work on Bennett Avenue in Richmond Heights, one of the first few suburban streets open to Black buyers in the 1950s and ’60s. In addition to many significant projects in St. Louis, Fleming also collaborated on projects in California and Georgia. In 1965, he co-founded the Urban Housing Foundation with six others, dedicated to ending racial discrimination in housing, combating income stratification in community development, increasing employment opportunities in project construction, and providing responsible management experience for disadvantaged groups.