Saturday, October 25, 2014
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Howard graduate has ascended to historical height of giant US automaker

“If I allow the fact that I am a Negro to checkmate my do will, I will inevitably form the habit of being defeated.”
—Renowned certified architect
Paul R. Williams [1915]

To measure the significance of the General Motors Vice President of Global Design, one need look no further than the audience he addressed this week at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.

In the air-conditioned auditorium sat some 50 design students who represented many ethnic groups and cultures, but not a single one of them was African-American.

071708_Ed_WilburnThe only Black in that setting was Edward T. Welburn, a product of historically Black Howard University in Washington D.C.

Welburn, the lecturer, was the target of admiration of the students in attendance. He was the standard that many of them wish to someday achieve.

His ethnicity and culture were perhaps lost upon them because his monumental achievements transcend, color or creed.

The native Philadelphian, who grew up in a rather exclusive suburban community, is all too familiar with such settings, admitting that he did not see many Blacks until he decided to attend Howard University.

“The first experience that I had with Blacks was when I went to Howard where many became successful such as Donald Byrd, Roberta Flack, Debbie Allen and Felicia Rashad, “ Welburn explained.

All of the aforementioned carved their niche in the music or entertainment industry, but Welburn is one of a few Blacks worldwide responsible for designing automobiles.

In 2005, he became the first Black to lead a major automaker design house.

Before that he was just the sixth person to lead GM design in its 75-year history, a feat that is not lost on him.

“I appreciate that GM has someone of color and of influence,” he said.

However he stopped short of hailing his position as some celebratory moment in history, stating, “I don’t think that anyone can assume the world has totally changed.”

Welburn says that he receives much adulation and respect in Germany and China where GM houses design studios.

He was the first Black designer hired by GM in 1972 and says that he never thought he would be in the prestigious position that he’s in today.

“All I ever wanted to do was design cars.”

It has been that way for as long as he can remember. He was just two-and-a-half-years-old when he began sketching pictures of automobiles, and just 11 years old when he decided that wanted to do it for a living.

A letter he wrote to GM at the time is what ultimately paved the way for him and lead to an internship under another GM design legend, Bill Mitchell.

Welburn designed everything from auto show concepts to family cars and trucks to world-speed vehicles. He was named vice president of North America design in 2003, and appointed GM vice president of Global Design in March 2005.

He concedes that much in society has changed in its view of race, “but cannot be ignored,” especially within the auto industry.

Another successful designer, Ralph Gilles, single handedly turned Chrysler fortunes around with his concept of the sleek and powerful Chrysler 300.

Welburn uses such adjectives as “romantic” and “flowing” to describe the new Buick and marvels at the sporty and luxurious Cadillac Escalade and STS models.

However, it is the model of consistency that will keep the wheels rolling for GM’s man of Global design.

Category: News


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