Family, color and place advantaged Julian Francis Abele (1881–1950) in his pursuit to become an architect. Patriarch Absalom Jones founded in 1787, the Free African Society the race’s first mutual aid society. Absalom Jones was the first of his race ordained an Episcopal priest in 1794. Julian Abele’s grandfather, Robert Jones, founded Lombard Street Presbyterian Church in 1844 the place of worship for light-skinned, free men of color many of whom were artisans. Julian Abele’s oldest brother Robert “Bun” Abele was the first colored graduate of Hahnemann Medical College in 1883. Sigma Pi Phi the first, Negro, Greek-letter, fraternity was founded in “Bun’s” parlor in 1911. Brother Joseph Abele was an engineer with the Philadelphia Electric Co. who “passed” for white in order to remain employed.
Olde Philadelphians were “light, bright and damn near white.” Skin color thus became a vertical stratification of class the lighter one’s complexion the higher the class. Olde Philadelphians disproportionately made their living as artisans. Julian’s skin color was “beige” which dissuaded him from attempting Joseph’s charade. He was, however, light-skinned enough to make integration easier.
Accelerated by the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition (1876) the city become the mecca of industrial arts. The Franklin Institute was a national leader stressing “mecknik” engineering. The Institute’s offerings were higher respected than the U.S. military academies at Annapolis and West Point. The Institute’s offerings attracted the attention of Fanny Jackson at the Institute of Colored Youth who organized the race’s first Industrial Department in 1884 available when Julian enrolled. The Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Art a residual of the Exposition and the University of Pennsylvania excelled at the “mecknik” arts which appealed to Julian.