February 2019  

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BLACK CONSTRUCTION

The Legacy of Building

One of the richest legacies of African Americans is construction. From the pyramids of Egypt to the building of America, Blacks have been involved in this industry that will survive the times.  We will always build.  Even when we demolish existing structures it is because we are about to build something new to replace it.

African slaves were brought to this continent in the early 1500's to build New York (New Amsterdam at the time), Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, DC and the entire Southeastern territories.  The craftsmanship that was learned through this action gave freed slaves an advantage as we slowly approached the Industrial Revolution.  America relied on the crafts learned by Blacks during slavery and passed along to offspring from generation to generation.  Even “Chicken George’s” son in the Roots documentary owned a lumber yard to sell supplies to the local black craftsmen who were the builders of the community.  

Due to the Jim Crow laws of the South, there were many Black southern craftsmen who would travel to perform their skills.  Many would go to places like New York, Philadelphia, Detroit, etc. and would out compete local white contractors who could not perform as well as they did and could not settle for their affordable pricing.  It was because of this, that construction unions in the North were formed to block out Black crews from coming into communities and providing a better service for a cheaper price.  Soon after the unions were formed they set in motion the Davis-Bacon Act (named for two New York congressmen).  This act set up arbitrary labor wage scales so that Black craftsmen could no longer underprice their white counter parts. They all had to pay a certain price, prevailing wage, at a minimum and competition became no more.  With the price competition out of the way, the whites moved in through political favor and blatant racism.  This would be followed with Project Labor Agreements which meant some projects would be declared “Union Only”.  With the construction unions discriminating against Blacks, Project Labor Agreement’s would also mean “Whites Only”.

Construction unions have made it rough for Black laborers and black owned construction companies.  However, some of the best have made it through the years.  Almost all of the longstanding Black construction companies have Southern roots.  The three largest companies are Powers & Sons, SR Smoot and Russell.  The founders stressed education on their children and today the second generation is bearing the fruits of that education.  The third generation is not only getting college degrees in engineering, their degrees are coupled with Construction Management, Architecture, Law, MBA, etc.  The new generation in construction is something we can all be proud of.

From an article written by Harry C. Alford (https://www.nationalbcc.org/news/beyond-the-rhetoric/251-beyond-the-rhetoric-40)