Tuskegee-Penn Partnership Advances Black Preservation

Special to The Truth

Not long after Booker T. Washington became the founding principal of
Tuskegee University, on July 4, 1881, he moved the campus from a one-room
schoolhouse to a 100-acre former plantation in Tuskegee, Alabama. In the
years that followed, Washington worked with the Black architect Robert
Robinson Taylor to build out the core buildings of the campus. Far from a
simple facilities expansion, the growth of the campus mirrored the
development of the curriculum. The University’s first architecture
students learned to design and build structures by building the campus

“For us, when you walk on our campus, you’re actually walking into an
educational curriculum,” says Kwesi Daniels, department head and
associate professor of architecture at The Robert R. Taylor School of
Architecture and Construction Science at Tuskegee University.
“You’re not sitting inside a building to learn. The learning starts the
minute you get here.”

More than a century later, that approach continues. Tuskegee architecture
students today are studying the discipline of historic preservation through
explorations of buildings on and near the historic HBCU campus, in part
through a collaboration with the Graduate Program in Historic Preservation
at the Weitzman School of Design at the University of Pennsylvania.
Teaching collaborations between Penn and Tuskegee go back to a partnership
established in 2019, when Tuskegee created a minor in historic
preservation, and the launch of the Center for the Preservation of Civil
Rights Sites (CPCRS) at Penn the following year. Tuskegee now offers
two courses in preservation, which have featured a series of guest speakers
from Weitzman. And it’s in the early stages of developing an
undergraduate major in preservation—potentially the first such program at
an HBCU.

“Penn is able to bring people to the table that have been doing it for 30
or 40 years,” Daniels says. “The depth of knowledge they have—it
allows us to understand how deep we need to go to build our program.”

Randy Mason, professor of historic preservation at Weitzman and faculty
director at CPCRS, says Penn’s budding partnership with Tuskegee is part
of a broader effort to bring more diverse professionals into the
preservation field, and to correct a legacy of neglect for Black spaces and
communities. Part of that push has involved supporting the work of
Black-led organizations through the CPCRS. Working with Black-led
institutions like Tuskegee advances those goals.

“HBCUs have an outsized influence as crucibles of Black culture,
creativity and scholarship,” Mason says. “The [Tuskegee] campus itself
is this incredible artifact that testifies to architecture and building,
and to preservation as a way of being good stewards of what you build.”

For students, the growing preservation curriculum at Tuskegee opens up new
professional possibilities. Jordan Lamar, a fourth-year architecture
student, enrolled at Tuskegee with the intention of building a career in
real estate development. At the urging of Daniels, he attended a workshop
on historic window restoration hosted by the HOPE Crew, an initiative
of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which sparked an interest
in hands-on preservation work. In his sophomore year, Lamar enrolled in the
first of a two-part preservation course at Tuskegee, where he met Mason and
other scholars from Penn and around the country. As part of that course, he
worked on a historic structures report for the John H. Drakeford House.
While there wasn’t much hands-on work because of the pandemic, Lamar says
it was eye-opening to realize that a report like that wasn’t just
paperwork, but involved things like laser scanning and drones.

“What interested me is the different paths you can take with historic
preservation,” he says.

Lamar later got a fellowship with the HOPE Crew. He says he’s still
planning to build a career in real estate, but with a focus on restoring
historic buildings.

“I definitely didn’t expect to be doing any of this, at least to this
extent,” he says. “Every time I get into something new [in
preservation] or find out something, it’s shocking, because I didn’t
know it could go this deep.”

Daniels says that when it comes to preserving Black history, Tuskegee has
“a narrative no one else has.” The school is within five hours of every
major Civil Rights site in the country, and within 30 minutes of many of
the most significant sites, he says. It’s also embedded in a rural place.
In that way, it’s an ideal place for studying how to preserve cultural
artifacts in communities all over the world that haven’t benefited from
traditional approaches to historic preservation. All of those things,
combined with the opportunities for hands-on work, are a draw for potential
preservation students, Daniels says. It’s a natural extension of the work
the school has already done.

“Students love it when they get into it, but initially these are all
students who come to Tuskegee to study architecture. There’s a case that
has to be made to them that preservation is architecture,” he says.

The collaboration between the universities has given Penn graduate students
new opportunities, too. Over the summer, Calvin Nguyen, a second-year
Master of Historic Preservation student at Penn, traveled to Alabama as an
intern with the Center for the Preservation of Civil Rights Sites. Working
with a group of preservationists, including recent Tuskegee graduates,
Nguyen contributed to site assessments for the First Baptist Church
(Brick-a-Day) in Montgomery, a hub of Civil Rights organizing, and the
Trinity Lutheran Church Parsonage, which was repeatedly bombed because
of its leader’s involvement in the Civil Rights movement. More than an
exercise in recording the conditions of the structures, Nguyen says, the
project was concerned with finding ways for preservation to contribute to
the broader uplift of disinvested parts of the city.

“It was about representing public history and Civil Rights history but
also sustainable heritage conservation,” he says. “It was more than
just saving the building. We were thinking about how the building can be
used by the community.”

For much of its history, the preservation discipline has “prioritized the
stories and places associated with a privileged few,” says Brent Leggs, an adjunct associate professor of historic preservation at the
Weitzman School and executive director of the African American Cultural
Heritage Action Fund, a program of the National Trust. Black and brown
communities often haven’t had the resources to “insure their permanence
and preservation,” he says, and the field of practitioners hasn’t
reflected the diversity of the country. On one hand, collaborations like
the one between Penn and Tuskegee can help bring new professionals of color
into the field of preservation. On another, they can contribute to the
preservation of invaluable cultural artifacts on the campuses of HBCUs like

“The big opportunity is to create a blueprint at Tuskegee that can be
replicated at the other six HBCUs with schools of design,” Leggs says.
“We, at Penn, are thrilled about this potential and our collaboration
with Tuskegee.”