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Samuel J. Cullers, the First Black City Planner

Black Voices in Urban PlanningThis is the second post in our Black History Month series. You can read the first here, which explains how we’re honoring how Black Americans have shaped how our communities are built. 

Samuel J. Cullers

Life: 1918-2005

Birthplace: Chicago

Education: Fisk University ‘48, MIT ‘52

“The main purpose of planning is to see where we are going in terms of where we have been, and then to assist in changing the direction toward where we want to go.” – Samuel J. Cullers

Samuel J. Cullers is recognized as the first Black “professional trained” urban planner and an advocate for ending housing discrimination against Black families. He earned his graduate degree in city and regional planning from MIT in 1952 and then became the Deputy Director of Redevelopment for the city of Hartford, CT. 

“Prior to commencing his career, a supervisor told Cullers that he should put his hopes aside of ever becoming an urban planner because of his race. Undeterred, Cullers began a planning career both here and abroad.” – Jeffrey Lowe, Sigmund Shipp, and Ivanie Love

In 1955, his professional career and personal life collided when he applied for an apartment at McKinley Park Homes. Cullers was denied and told there were “no vacancies” available. He was denied housing because he was African American – twice. Cullers filed a discrimination lawsuit against the company, which he won. However, it was later dismissed by the Connecticut Supreme Court for lack of evidence. 

Cullers continued his work as a Planner both in North America – in Hartford, Sacramento, Chicago, and Toronto – then internationally in Thailand. He served as Chief of Urban Planning for the State of California and Acting Director for the CA State Office of Planning before his starting own planning firm, Samuel J. Cullers & Associates in 1972. 

During his career, he was an active and beloved member of the American Planning Association (APA), taking on leadership roles within local chapters and at the national level. Cullers was an extremely active member of the community beyond his professional life, serving on the boards of many nonprofits including the Red Cross, United Way, and NAACP.

Throughout his life, Cullers fought against racism as an activist for the rights of Black Americans and their representation in planning and development decisions. In 1998, he wrote an essay for the NAACP’s The Crisis magazine, entitled, “Our Only Concerns Should Be Black Concerns.”

Additional information about Samuel J. Cullers: 

Continuing this Work Today

Samuel J. Cullers was not the first Black person to be denied housing because of his race. Racism in housing decisions and access plays out every day across this country 66 years later even though it’s illegal. There are organizations in the U.S. dedicated to eliminating racism in housing decisions, representing those who have been discriminated against, and a third category of organizations – those fighting gentrification, changing planning/zoning laws, increasing Black homeownership, and improving access to quality housing. 

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