The Armstrong School, a small rural schoolhouse located near Tuskegee University in Alabama, was in poor shape. With significant structural issues, the red-roofed schoolhouse needed restoration and repair. Built in 1906 as a part of then-Tuskegee Institute president Booker T. Washington’s efforts to educate rural Black children, the building itself has become an artifact of the Historically Black University’s legacy—and an opportunity to train emerging architects and preservationists on historic preservation.
Kwesi Daniels, associate professor and head of Tuskegee University’s Department of Architecture, has assembled a curriculum for students to study and preserve nearby historic sites, including other Tuskegee Rural Schools. In 2019, Daniels led Tuskegee in a partnership with the Graduate Program of Historic Preservation at University of Pennsylvania’s Weitzman School for an initiative dubbed “Capacity Building for Sustainable Preservation of Civil Rights Heritage Places.”
“Tuskegee has laid the foundation to be the center of a bigger preservation movement in the Alabama Black Belt. In order to continue to build the capacity and momentum around that, we are supporting them as an academic partner,” says Randall Mason, a UPenn professor of historic preservation. “We’ve been teaching preservation for a long time—engaging with some of the same issues—but there’s a way to both give more resources to professor Daniels and his students and faculty, and provide more opportunities to work for our students.” Daniels and Mason set out to preserve the Armstrong School, on which Daniels’ students had already performed extensive documentation.
Despite the pandemic, the collaboration brought new resources and knowledge to the project. “Being trained as an architect, I see the buildings and say, ‘let’s think about stabilization.’ But what Randy was able to bring to the table were practitioners who focus on materials, how to conduct research; testing on wood and paint, soils, and brick at a very granular level,” Daniels says. They spent their first year working virtually, Daniels says, collaborating with the property stewards and community members through video interviews and virtual site tours.
Each university’s team, understanding their expertise and limitations, offers specific skills and responsibilities to the Armstrong School project. “As we’ve jumped into preservation, because we’re a school of architecture, we have honed in on what the architecture contribution is. And because [UPenn] is not architecture, it focuses on all these other aspects of preservation. And we’re able to play in the same sandbox without any competition over the work, because they’re unique contributions that we both bring to the table,” Daniels says. This long-term partnership model could be formalized and exported to other architecture or preservation schools looking to expand their curricular offerings and impact, Daniels says, but the the alliance’s most immediate benefits, both Daniels and Mason agree, are the preservation of important Black heritage places like Armstrong and the pipeline that it creates from a Historically Black undergraduate institution to a graduate program.
“What the partnership does is demystify a lot of the graduate school process; it’s not this faraway entity,” Daniels says. Adds Mason, “We take very seriously the challenge of diversifying design schools—especially Historic Preservation. By any sensor, any measure, we’re woefully behind. And this brings our students and faculty in contact with students and faculty from Tuskegee, and I think builds a bigger common ground that we can continue to build on, and brings more different voices into our program and into our work.”
This article first appeared in the October 2022 issue of ARCHITECT.
This article has been updated since first publication.