Constructing Carolina: People of Color in The Skilled Trades Throughout NC History
By: Kaylee Martin
From creations of the past to developments in the current day, people of color in the skilled trades have made a massive impact on our progress as a nation. Battling upwards throughout American history, black tradespeople, contractors, and business owners have faced incredible odds to achieve amazing feats in the construction industry. As we continue to celebrate Black History Month, we want to highlight a few key innovators and craftsmen of color that have pushed diversity and equity in the skilled trades forward through their hard work and dedication to their craft.
Laying the Foundation
During the Antebellum period of American history (approximately 1815-1861), much of the Southern economy relied on slave labor. While the majority of enslaved people worked in agriculture in rural areas, more urban sectors saw a much larger population of slaves working in the skilled trades as carpenters, masons, and builders.
One such tradesman was the multi-skilled Joe Welcome. A stonemason, bricklayer, and plasterer, Welcome was born a slave to a wealthy merchant. However, as he learned and grew his skills, he was able to operate with a fair amount of independence. Welcome was a major contributor to several notable buildings around Edenton, NC – a town just off of the Albemarle Sound.
In the Raleigh area, artisan Stewart Ellison was also born a slave. However, after gaining his freedom, Ellison went on to become a contractor of his own while participating in several organizations as a political leader. Throughout his active years as a contractor, he was responsible for constructing multiple infrastructural buildings around the city. While reportedly none of his contributions survived into the modern age, his legacy as one of the most prolific black contractors in North Carolina will live on.
Following the Civil War and into the early 20th century, black tradesmen were able to dig deeper into building and bettering their own communities. One example of this is carpenter and builder William W. Smith, who is also noted as Charlotte’s first black architect. Throughout his career, Smith constructed many buildings within Charlotte’s black business and cultural hubs, aiding in the growth of black-owned businesses in this area as a whole.
Building a Legacy
As of 2022, we can see that, despite the progress that has been made throughout time, African Americans in construction still make up just a marginal amount of all workers in the industry. Consisting of only 5.3% of Construction Managers, 5.4% of Machine Operators, and 8.4% of Laborers, it is clear that we still have a long way to go before people of color are properly represented.
In the face of these statistics, however, black-owned construction firms are standing tall in the Charlotte area and beyond. One of these is McFarland Construction, a Charlotte-based, full-service construction management, general contracting, and design/build company owned by Tino McFarland. McFarland Construction operates all over the Southeast, handling projects from inception to completion while earning praise for their innovation, professionalism, and quality.
Looking to South Carolina, we also find black-owned and woman-owned Cassy Electric. First operating out of the trunk of founder Cassandra Brayboy’s car, this family-owned business has garnered a fabulous reputation for their electrical expertise and friendly customer service. Working under the slogan “You Hire We Wire,” Cassy Electric embodies the industrious mindset that created success for many minority tradespeople before them.
As people of color in the trades have fought and worked for equal treatment and opportunity in their careers, stories from black artisans of all kinds have showcased their indomitable spirit. Although the fight for equality and representation in construction is not over, celebrations such as Construction Inclusion Week, organizations like us at She Built This City, and stories like those above are creating room for more discussion on diversity in the industry everyday. With every conversation, creation, and piece of history crafted by black tradespeople, more light shines on their diligence and ability, and continuously reminds us that it is through history we grow – and United We Spark!
About the Author: Currently a Project Administrator at Hoopaugh Grading Company in Charlotte, NC, Kaylee has enjoyed learning about and sharing experiences from the skilled trades since her childhood. Accompanying her father to construction job sites as a young girl, she saw first-hand how those working in the trades shared values of hard work and camaraderie – knowing then that this was the field she wanted to be in. Since then, Kaylee has found a way to marry her love of the skilled trades with her love of writing by working together with She Built This City to help spread our message and share our stories!