Six Students' Legacies: Learning To Do By Doing, And Telling Stories Through Preservation At Tuskegee
by Hadley Peterson and Julia Marchetti
Exactly 100 years ago, students at Tuskegee University built the five Willcox Trades Buildings, "A" through "E," following the destruction of the Memorial Sloan Trades building in 1918. The Willcox Trades Buildings A, C, and E are now the home of the Robert R. Taylor School of Architecture and Construction Science (TSACS). Constructed with bricks made by–and for–African-American Tuskegee students, these structures were also designed by two pioneering African-American architects of the day: Albert Cassell and William Hazel. The Willcox Trades Buildings were the first set of buildings erected by Tuskegee students and outsourced labor. Amplifying the stories of those preserving the buildings, as well as the original builders, helps cultivate a larger sense of community pride in the preservation process.
Continuing this legacy of hands-on learning, six students, working with Dr. Kwesi Daniels (the University's Department Head of Architecture), began preserving the windows of Building E. The students were instructed by Jim Turner, of Turner Restoration, and advised by Dr. Daniels  as part of the National Trust for Historic Preservation's HOPE (Hands-On Preservation Experience) Crew this past summer. HOPE Crew is a component of a larger summer program called Preservation in Practice, a three-way partnership between the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the National Park Service, and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation . It links young professionals from Historically Black Colleges and Universities across the nation to preservation projects by offering training and facilitating preservation-trades work.
One Tuskegee student, Domonique Jiles, said the process entailed “removing all the original windows, re-oiling and refurbishing them, taking out the panes, putting them back together, and eventually rehanging them.” It made her realize just how much you can do as an individual or as a collective, especially when you use the resources around you. Rikeya Wallace also commented on using locally sourced materials, saying that by doing so, it gives back to the community, calling Tuskegee “very community oriented.” But, perhaps more importantly, she mentioned how this project taught the HOPE Crew how much time the original students, designers, and builders must have devoted to the project.
By participating in HOPE Crew, these students not only learned about the window-restoration process, they also exchanged stories of community, and by extension, contributed to the legacy of Tuskegee. As Kayla Heard said, “I worked on something that students years ago worked on. It was an honor to follow in the footsteps of students who built this school. And to know that even with different technology we still use the same trades.” Ty’kwon Summerville said that even though it was just window work, it was “tough and time consuming,” but, “so rewarding because this was the work of [his] ancestors.”
This legacy of learning and building together as a community is one reason many students come to Tuskegee and connect with it as a place. For example, Ty’kwon Summerville said he had family that went there, and it was that history that initially connected him to the University. Preservation is an exercise in storytelling about history and place: engaging audiences, sparking imaginations, and dreaming for the future. Therefore, preservation, and its storytelling, need to be powerfully visionary—like these students at Tuskegee University and the buildings that carry its legacy.
This process of embodied learning is also rooted in Tuskegee’s proud connection to Booker T. Washington. Such work preserves Washington’s mission of “learning to do by doing,” and his belief that by requiring students to do this, they would feel a degree of ownership in their community. “We are following Dr. Booker T. Washington's educational philosophy of educating the head, hand, and heart to imbue our students with the theoretical and practical skills they can use to rebuild their communities," noted Dr. Daniels. This strategic mix of practical theory and real-world experience, known as the “Tuskegee Experience,” prepares students to go out and make a difference in the world. The National Trust for Historic Preservation’s HOPE Crew program dovetails with this model because of its emphasis on learning through doing. HOPE Crew is part of a larger initiative that will use the Tuskegee campus as a learning laboratory for observing and participating in preservation training. Eventually, projects like these will not only be able to advance the craft skills of its students, but the Tuskegee community at large.
Tuskegee offers students a unique experience in preservation in one way because it's a national historic landmark. As Kayla Heard puts it, you are “always a part of the narrative by being in those buildings. Everyone here is part of preservation work even without knowing it.” She loves the way that preservation unfolds through a hands-on process at this site, allowing her to “get into the art of it.” This tactile quality is her favorite part of preservation. Rikeya Wallace also likes the hands-on workshops and studio projects. The mission of TSACS echoes the idea of hands-on work supporting community leadership, stating that the school was founded on “a belief in the power of architecture…to uplift the human condition...Students are prepared to become citizen architects and builders - community leaders who provide a vision of a better-built environment.”
Moving forward, preservation must continue to serve communities in ways such as this—as a tool to revitalize, preserve culture, and recognize places. As Ty’kwon Summerville said, “architecture and preservation are about more than a building. They can actually impact community in terms of affordable housing, healthcare, or quality of life. For example, when Booker Washington created Tuskegee, he created buildings. But he also created the ability to get a world-class education that continues to build legacy and develop human capital.”
Building an Inclusive Preservation Field
Tuskegee is the only Historically Black College or University (HBCU) that offers historic-preservation skill building. HBCUs such as Tuskegee University are crucial players in the shift from an exclusionary preservation to a robust and inclusive one—their preservation leadership affirms that historic preservation is for everyone. Furthermore, other institutions of higher education might do well by recruiting and supporting a more diverse pool of applicants in order to re-energize the field. Domonique Jiles knows that she can play a role in encouraging other women of color to pursue architecture, design, or preservation as a viable career option, as she feels it's her responsibility to “open that door for others that come behind me, like others did for me.”
Historic preservation also needs to be more intentional about who it reaches and which stories it seeks to tell. While the field of preservation offers communities a unique set of tools and resources, these valuable assets have been used to amplify certain voices while ignoring others. The narratives of underrepresented groups must be told and celebrated, but one impediment to a more balanced representation is the way “historical significance” is often defined.
The places of significance for communities of color are often overlooked because the voices of these individuals are not always present at the decision-making table. Domonique Jiles affirms this point by asking, “What if a structure is important to the community, or significant to me, and deserves the attention and preservation? Yet it won’t be preserved if it isn’t the dominant story being told.” She knows how important it is to have voices like hers advocating for human-centered and equitable preservation, because the spaces we inhabit and the connections we make in them are important in all communities. It is for this reason that she eventually would like to work in communities that are important to her. Ty’kwon Summerville agrees that even though everything has a story, it is most important to “find the important areas that highlight trials and tribulations, or areas that need a lot of work…” These are the projects in most dire need of preservation!
Through these radical acts of defining collective consciousness and deciding what is significant, preservation became a way for communities to find and use their voice, not only to save a particular building, but to preserve their culture and spirit that is encapsulated by it. As preservationists move into a new decade, arguably one wherein the focus should be on people-centered historical narratives, it is necessary to critically consider preservation’s role in telling the whole American story.
The more inclusive this field becomes, the more people can access these tools and resources to transform and uplift their communities. Resources must be directly funneled towards these efforts. And while the preservation movement is increasingly committed to this, as evidenced by the efforts of groups across the country like Houston’s Project Row Houses and Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park Conservancy, this intentionality needs to continue in order to remedy the biases and oversights of past city builders, historians, and policymakers, and prevent these missteps from occurring again. Preservation efforts must prioritize equity, diversity, and inclusivity in order to tell more accurate and complete stories, which will help to return these spaces to underrepresented groups who can use it to further define their identities and share their histories.
Perhaps in this new decade preservationists have been charged with the task to make visible the experiences, contributions, and heritage of underrepresented voices, while being transparent about the ways the field has failed to support these groups in the past…The ability to tell stories is powerful, but the ability to show these stories by preserving places and communities is even more so.
- 1. Dr. Daniels is a faculty advisor for the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s HOPE Crew, and represents Tuskegee University.
- 2. Preservation in Practice connects historic preservation and conservation through a joint project with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). The Project brings young African American professionals into historic preservation from related career paths, such as architecture, history, conservation, city and regional planning, construction, and engineering, and raises awareness of the rich cultural legacy of HBCUs.