Garden History Spotlight: David Williston


David Williston, Image courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation.

An accomplished teacher, horticulturist, and designer, David Williston (1896–1962) was also a pioneer in the field of landscape architecture. The first professionally-trained Black landscape architect in the United States, Williston graduated from Cornell University in 1898 with a degree in agriculture and pursued his studies further through municipal engineering courses at the International Correspondence School in Scranton, PA.

A group photo of the Horticultural Lazy Club, informally known as “Bailey’s Boys” in the late 1890s. David Williston, standing fourth from left, was the first African-American student to join the club, organized by Liberty Hyde Bailey, far right. Image and text courtesy Cornell University. 

Williston was a design aficionado of collegiate spaces and a champion of the English landscape style. While his portfolio consisted of numerous college campuses, including Clark University, Lane College, Howard University, Philander Smith College, and Alcorn State University, much of his professional career was spent at Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) in Alabama. During his tenure there, he not only taught and practiced landscape architecture, he was also the superintendent of the grounds and buildings so he had a significant impact on the layout and aesthetics of the campus. His time at the Tuskegee Institute also led to a notable collaboration with perhaps his most famous colleague, George Washington Carver. Records indicate that the two men worked together on the plant selections both for the Tuskegee Institute and The Oaks, the home built for Booker T. Washington. Without access to white-owned nurseries, Williston cultivated his own plantings (often through propagation) or sought out native specimens in nearby forests.


Williston's Site Plan for The Oaks, Tuskegee Institute Campus Image courtesy NPS/Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS AL-877), Library of Congress

After Tuskegee, Williston moved to Washington, D.C., where he opened the first Black-owned landscape architecture firm while continuing to teach and consult. A standalone in the field, he created a legacy that can still be seen and experienced in landscapes throughout the South.