At Tuskegee University, an architecture professor leverages historic preservation goals to meet community ones

These Walls Can Talk

At Tuskegee University, an architecture professor leverages historic preservation goals to meet community ones

Architecture students at Tuskegee University participate in a window restoration workshop. (Kwesi Daniels)

Traces of the past at Tuskegee University remind attentive students and visitors of the unique social conditions that produced the historic campus. Founded in 1881, the institution was built up by its first group of students and instructors. Their hands made the bricks and mixed the mortar, and if you look closely, you can find their fingerprints preserved in the building facades.

“Our campus is a living, organic entity because it was born out of the dirt and shaped by students and faculty,” said Kwesi Daniels, assistant professor of architecture at Tuskegee. “It’s alive, but it has been sitting dormant.” For four years, Daniels has worked to activate the school and community’s history, leading project-based learning and public workshops intended to stir up local investment in their preservation.

In Tuskegee, Alabama, where more than a quarter of the residents live in poverty and few employment opportunities exist outside of the university, Daniels sees an opportunity to get the local population involved in the region’s unique history. “As a National Historic Landmark, we have historic fabric [and] a community that’s in need of repair,” said Daniels. Given the resources accorded to landmarks, and their high visibility, he believes that historic preservation is uniquely equipped to give residents agency over their city.

A building falling apart at Tuskegee University
The Armstrong School (Courtesy Tuskegee University)

Daniels is currently working in Macon County, Alabama, to preserve the Armstrong School, the last remaining church school for African Americans in the area. He structured his design courses so as to capture the full arc of the process—from measurement to future planning. Students learned about construction documents to investigate and measure the building and produce a set of drawings. Subsequent coursework also had them write a landmarks nomination, create a stabilization plan, and furnish guidelines for how that building can be used after it’s been restored. Daniels also focused the students’ attention on the importance of outreach and gained the support of the University of Pennsylvania and community organizations around the county to help restore the Armstrong School.

Macon County has several other historic schools—called Rosenwald Schools—that are also in great need of repair. Built by Tuskegee University founder Booker T. Washington and Sears, Roebuck & Co. president Julius Rosenwald, the schools served rural Black communities and relied on community investment—often in the form of construction labor—for their success. Similarly, Daniels is helping to train community members to do preservation work themselves.

Early on in his Tuskegee tenure (he joined the architecture school in 2017), Daniels began assembling a preservation workshop for students and volunteers. He focused specifically on the Shiloh Rosenwald School in Macon County, which required extensive window rehabilitation. Daniels also wanted students to learn brickmaking, citing its centrality to Tuskegee’s founding. “Washington learned how to make bricks, then taught students how to make bricks. And then at one point, the school was exporting over a million bricks a year, in addition to using bricks to build our campus,” he said. The resulting three-day workshop brought brick masons, students, and community members together with what Daniels calls “an all-star team” of preservation professionals.

“I’m watching them take lime and charcoal and mixing it with lime to create lime mortar. The brick masons gave a master class in how to ‘read’ bricks for the brick markings that tell you how it was made, and how you can even find the fingerprints in the brick,” recalled Daniels. “We saw our campus come alive.”

The 2018 workshop also brought to life the region’s history through an entire slew of programs, facilitated by how-tos on drone photography, hand measuring, and laser scanning. “Everything we’ve done since then, from documenting civil rights sites in Tuskegee and Montgomery to developing preservation plans for buildings on campus and around the community—and now a virtual tour of the campus and historic sites around our community—all of that is all in an outgrowth from snippets of that initial workshop,” said Daniels.

For him, and the growing movement of Black practitioners of historic preservation of which he is a part, the prevailing discourse must move from preserving buildings to preserving communities. Daniels goes further, however, with his “social sustainability” approach. “I see the work that we’re doing now as the integration of sustainability and preservation, because there’s nothing more sustainable than preserving a community and reusing old buildings,” he explained.

“A socially sustainable environment,” he added, “is one where the people who are living in that environment can continue to live in the place that they grew up, a stake of claim to that space.” By turning local residents’ attention to historic sites, Daniels’s work enables them to stake their claim to the community’s past and future.