During Lankford’s career, he specialized in church, fraternal, and school designs along with residential commissions in Black communities throughout the country and South Africa. Notable buildings designed and constructed under Lankford’s supervision include Atlanta’s Big Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church, Washington, D.C.’s True Reformers Hall and Deland’s Bethel A.M.E. Church.

Born in Patosi, Missouri in 1874, Lankford was Lankford attended and graduated Lincoln Institute (presently Lincoln University) and Tuskegee University after personally receiving an invitation from Booker T. Washington to enroll. By 1901, Lankford had become a highly respected architect throughout the east coast of the country.

In 1902, he married the granddaugther of Bishop Henry McNeal Turner of the A.M.E. Church and relocated to Washington, D.C. where he established an architectural office. While gaining a reputation for designing fashionable homes for prominent professionals at the time, he believed that Blacks should build their own churches, rather than purchase old buildings vacated by Whites. With the support of Bishop Turner, Lankford was elected as the official Church Architect and Supervisor of A.M.E. buildings in 1908.

As the official architect for the national A.M.E. church, Lankford resided in Jacksonville between 1912 and 1916, serving as an architect and professor at Edwards Waters University. Established in 1866, Edward Waters University was started by Bishop Charles H. Pearce to educate the former enslaved, with a focus on those desiring to enter A.M.E. church ministry. Lankford eventually left his role with the A.M.E. and returned to the private sector. After a lengthy illness, John Anderson Lankford passed in Washington, D.C. on July 2, 1946.

During his time in Jacksonville, Lankford was credited as being the supervising architect for several large commissions. While many have been demolished over the decades, here are a few surviving buildings tied to Lankford’s time in Jacksonville.

Centennial Hall

Centennial Hall is the oldest surviving building on the campus of Edward Waters University. Built in 1916, it was added to the United States National Register of Historic Places on May 4, 1976. Now the college library, this structure was designed by Richard Lewis Brown (1854-1948), Jacksonville’s first-known Black architect. While Brown has long been associated with this structure locally, Lankford was living in Jacksonville and employed as the architect for the A.M.E. denomination at Edward Waters University in 1916. It is likely, these men worked together on the design and construction of this building, along with a firm based out of Seattle, Washington.

Susie Tolbert House

The Susie E. Tolbert House at 1665 Pearce Street. Born in Chicago, Susie Ella Middleton Tolbert moved to Jacksonville following the Great Fire of 1901. A mother of seven, Tolbert taught music and applied social etiquette at Edwards Waters College. She also supported needy students by providing free room and board and lobbying for better facilities and equipment for Black children in town.

In addition, Tolbert developed the Willing Workers Club and the Christian Endeavor Organization for her church, New Bethel AME. Her Garden Club focused on beautifying Black neighborhoods throughout the city. In 1951, nine years after her passing, school officials changed the name of College Park Elementary School to Susie E. Tolbert Elementary School in her honor. Restored in 2012, her former residence is now the Office of Institutional Advancement on the campus of Edward Waters University.

Lankford originally designed and built this residence as a parsonage for Edward Waters.

Masonic Temple

Completed in 1916, the Masonic Temple has served as the focal point for Jacksonville’s Black community’s commercial and fraternal activities for decades. Anchoring LaVilla’s Broad Street, an original version of the six story building designed by John Anderson Lankford. Lankford also served as the consulting architect for Victor E. Mark and Leeroy Sheftall, to produce the final building design characterized as a mix of “Prairie” and “Chicago” School architectural styles. Then valued at $102,000, the mixed-use building featured retail at street level, office space on the second and third floors, with the top floors being occupied by the Grand Lodge.

Described as one of the finest buildings in the world owned by the Black community, throughout Jacksonville’s history, the Masonic Temple was instrumental in the development of the local Black middle class community, Civil Rights and the Chitlin Circuit. Still owned and operated by The Most Worshipful Union Grand Lodge, Most Ancient and Honorable Fraternity, Free and Accepted Masons, Prince Hall Affiliation, Florida and Belize, Central America Jurisdiction, Incorporated, the building was designated to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.

Article by Ennis Davis, AICP. Contact Ennis at edavis@moderncities.com.