Black Craftsmen and the Built Environment

AA craftsmen

Image from the 2008 City of Charleston Preservation Plan

The Thomas Mayhem Pinckney Alliance is dedicated to recognizing and promoting significant sites and places in Charleston related to African American history. As Black History Month comes to a close, it is an apt time to highlight the considerable influence African and African American labor has had on the city, specifically its built environment. While the preservation movement’s policies and outcomes contributed to the current state of the Peninsula’s celebrated urban fabric, the skilled hands of predominantly black artisans were integral to the original creation of that fabric, the preservation movement itself, and the resultant building stock.

Charleston’s antebellum economy was heavily dependent upon slave labor, and because it was a major hub in the transatlantic slave trade, the city’s black population outnumbered whites for most of the 18th and 19th centuries.[1] Most enslaved people were involved in rural agriculture, but there was a prominent minority of urban slaves who worked in industry and skilled trades like carpentry, masonry, and ironwork. In addition, 82% of the freedmen population of the city was employed in skilled crafts by the mid-19th century.[2]Although professional architects, master builders, and “gentleman-amateurs” were primarily responsible for designing Charleston, societal strictures made it so that the sizable population of free black laborers and slaves were the ones who actually built it.[3]

The tradition of black Charlestonians performing skilled crafts, including the building trades, continued after Emancipation. By 1870, skilled tradesmen constituted 26% of the black male workforce and were the most highly skilled cohort in the city compared to artisans who were native whites or recent immigrants.[4] What’s more, by 1880, four of the ten occupations that skilled black workers filled were related to the building arts; i.e., carpenter, brick mason, blacksmith, and painter.[5]

city directory

Charleston, SC 1877 City Directory. The letter “c” denotes a person of color.

Blacks and whites worked alongside one another in skilled labor positions in both antebellum and postbellum years, and in the late-19th century especially, the two segments of the population competed for skilled employment.[6],[7] Regardless of this competition, however, African Americans remained important as artisans because stigma and lower wages made white workers reluctant to vie for positions blacks already occupied; therefore, African Americans were the predominant building tradesmen throughout the late-19th and early-20th centuries.[8]

By the time Thomas M. Pinckney would make a name for himself through his fine carpentry work restoring historic houses during the preservation movement, black male Charlestonians faced a paucity of employment opportunities aside from traditional crafts.[9] The progression of manufacturing technologies in the late-19th and early-20th centuries fundamentally changed the labor market by making many of the skilled jobs black workers traditionally occupied, such as cobblers and coopers, obsolete. The new technical occupations that supplanted traditional jobs also required more advanced training, which was unavailable to many African Americans because of discrimination and “exclusionist policies of white labor.”[10] The building trades remained viable employment options for black males.

Today, recognition of craft traditions is alive in Charleston, and the Thomas Mayhem Pinckney Alliance continues to honor the role of African Americans in preserving the culture, vibrancy, and historical integrity of the city. Though the field of building arts is more diverse today with regard to gender and race than it was historically, the next time you are walking through the beautiful city streets, remember to look around you and think not only of the architects and master builders, but also of the oft-overlooked skill of black labor. Promoting and being cognizant of a more inclusive history of this remarkable place will be of immeasurable benefit to contemporary society and posterity.

 

By Tim Condo, Manager of Preservation Initiatives at the Preservation Society. 

 

[1] Bernard Powers, “The Black Craft Tradition in Charleston,” Lowcountry Digital History Initiative, Published May 2014 and accessed February 2016, http://ldhi.library.cofc.edu/exhibits/show/philip_simmons/black-craft-tradition-in-charl.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Maurie D. McInnis, The Politics of Taste in Antebellum Charleston (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005), p. 65. *This book is available at the Preservation Society’s Shop: stop by or call 843.722.4630 ext. 11

[4] Powers, “The Black Craft Tradition in Charleston.”

[5] Ibid.

[6] McInnis, The Politics of Taste in Antebellum Charleston.

[7] Powers, “The Black Craft Tradition in Charleston.”

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

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