Tuskegee Institute and the Politics of Bricolage

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White Hall, Tuskegee University

White Hall, Tuskegee University


Tuskegee University is a historically black university located in Macon County, Alabama.

The county is part of the Black Belt, a region stretching across the southern United States characterized by its rich, organic, black soil. The Black Belt was home to much of the antebellum South’s plantation system, dependent upon the work of African-American slaves. It was thus home to much of the country’s original black population.

The University was founded as the Tuskegee Normal School in 1881.  Because the State of Alabama was unwilling to provide any funds for campus construction, its founding principal, Booker T. Washington, was faced with the daunting challenge of constructing a campus with no state funding and limited private funding. All this in one of the most racially troubled parts of the country at that time, less than an hour’s ride from the original capitol of the Confederate States of America, in Montgomery.


“Cast down your bucket where you are.”

Washington’s famous words capture the ethos of self-reliance which guided Tuskegee’s program of campus construction. This program was inspired by at-hand materials and labor:

  • earth materials lying under the campus’s ground
  • labor provided by students as payment for tuition and room and board

In the early 1880s Washington and faculty created a system of campus construction based on these resources. Building materials – bricks, lumber and metal work – would be manufactured on campus, largely from raw materials present on the campus – clay and timber. Based on this inventory of materials, campus buildings would be designed and constructed by students and faculty.

The building’s forms were influenced by their materials – based on the various brick-based high and industrial styles found in the country at that time, including styles uncommon to the region such as arts and crafts.

The first brick yards were established on the campus in 1883. The clay used for the brick was mined on the campus, by students. In the brick yards, students tempered clay, formed green bricks and fired them in kilns. Bricks not used for campus buildings were sold locally.

Millions of bricks were produced and the institution completed its first major construction phase. This resulted in what today is the historic core of the campus, the Tuskegee Institute National Historic Site. Other buildings outside the core were also built of student-made brick.

Tuskegee - brick - wall - 01

Washington died in 1915. The program appears to have ended by the 1930s. One of the last buildings to be constructed of student-made brick stands today as part of the Willcox complex housing the Taylor School of Architecture and Construction Science. This brought an end to the first phase of masonry self-manufacturing on the campus.



Washington’s ethos of self-reliance as a means of achieving economic equality for blacks wasn’t limited to the needs of the campus. Early in his tenure he began an outreach program aimed at improving the conditions for impoverished blacks in the Alabama Black Belt.

This program flourished under Washington’s successors. Its focus by the 1940s was the region’s large population of sharecroppers. These farmers and their families lived on  and farmed land owned by white farmers. Sharecroppers, were paid by being given a “share” of the crops they cultivated and harvested. This typically was insufficient to live on, leaving the sharecropper dependent upon their white employer.

During the Jim Crow era, generation after generation of blacks were locked into this system with no way out.

At Tuskegee, President Frederick D. Patterson sought a way to help these families break out of the sharecropping cycle. Drawing on Washington’s strategy of self-build, Patterson initiated a program called the Low Cash-Cost House (LCCH).

Low Cash Cost House, Elevation (Source: Tuskegee University)

Low Cash Cost House, Elevation (Source: Tuskegee University)

“Casting down his bucket where he stood,” Patterson observed a local famer making concrete blocks using sand and gravel from local stream beds. By the 1940s, because it cost less, concrete block had begun to replace brick as a building material, especially for low-cost construction.

Just as Washington had 50 years earlier, Patterson developed a self-build technique in which masonry units could be mass-produced for relatively low cost. The owner, under guidance of Tuskegee faculty and students, would excavate sand and aggregates from local streams, mix it with cement and water, and form it in hand-made wooden forms.

Wooden Forms Used to Make Tuskegee Block

Wooden Forms Used to Make Tuskegee Block

The blocks were more like bricks than the conventional hollow blocks used today. Solid, they were used to build loadbearing walls two-wythes thick with insulating air space in between. Bricks were sometimes used with the blocks, to create richly patterned surfaces.

Tuskegee Low Cash Cost House Concrete Block

Tuskegee Low Cash Cost House Concrete Block

Tuskegee - lcch - 08

Many local sharecroppers were able to move their families out this system with the help of the LCCH program. It made home ownership possible for the first time for many of these families. It allowed them to feel the sense of pride and self-sufficiency sapped by the sharecropping system.

Mr. James Echols Jr. in Front of the Low Cash-Cost House  Constructed for his Father in 1951

Mr. James Echols Jr. in Front of the Low Cash-Cost House
Constructed for his Father in 1951

The LCCH program completed many buildings in Macon County. It collaborated with affordable construction programs in Africa and Southeast Asia. It continued through the 1950s.



 Tuskegee Masonry Making as Bricolage

Two aspects of Washington’s brick making approach qualify it as bricolage:

  1. Use of an “inventory” of at-hand resources – clay soils and student labor – which      influenced the campus’s building types (form follows material)
  2. Use of inexpert labor and modest technologies – hybrid hand/machine techniques

The concrete block making program shared these attributes:

  1. Inventory of native sandy soils and owner’s labor
  2. Self-taught skills and manual techniques to make the block

Washington’s “cast down your bucket where you are” ethos can be interpreted as “use the resources immediately at-hand.” This was a brilliant strategy for getting around the economic barriers the black institution faced, while showing exemplary self-reliance and imagination.

 Tuskegee Masonry Making as Techne

Viewed as techne, both of the masonry making processes may be seen as hybrid approaches which combined aspects of both:

  • Pre-modern technique: handicraft
  • Modern technique: machines

In both cases, natural resources and processes were exploited, but fairly gently.

The Tuskegee brick index their origins. Their heterogeneous colorations and textures derive from the matching variegated properties of the local clays used. These surfaces were transformed further during the rough-hewn manufacturing process including marks left by the hands and tools of the brick makers.

Clay bed near Tuskegee campus

Clay bed near Tuskegee campus

Tuskegee brick

Tuskegee brick

Similarly, the properties of the Tuskegee concrete blocks express the varied colors and textures of the native sands and aggregates used.

Tuskegee - lcch - 01

Today, these materials index their past with rich patinas and weathering effects.

In both cases, the material unit indexes the racial conditions of the post-reconstruction South. It bears traces of this past and tells the story of the Tuskegee Institute’s role in overcoming economic injustice against black Americans.          

Low Cash-Cost House

Low Cash-Cost House

Tuskegee Masonry and Protogeometricality

The Tuskegee masonry units have protogeometrical properties. Appreciating their rich character requires going outside the modernist aesthetics for building construction and building materials, which privilege exactness, homogeneity of surface and form, and consistency (every material unit is the same).

The Tuskegee masonry units are inexact and inconsistent. Color and texture vary within a single unit, and from unit to unit. Edges are often crooked. Corners are sometimes slumped or rounded.

They have the rough-hewn beauty of works produced by “modestly skilled workers” extolled by Ruskin and other Arts and Crafts designers.

Tuskegee Brick

Tuskegee Brick


Most importantly, the Tuskegee masonry units show how the design process for a building begins with the making of its constituent materials.

These programs show how self-build strategies can include making a building’s construction materials. Materials can be mass-produced in order to serve entire communities in need.

They show how hybrid hand-machine techniques, in addition to being affordable, can produce materials which are:

  • perceptually rich
  • rooted in regional native materials
  • sustainable

The Tuskegee masonry programs provide a model for fusing social responsibility, sustainability and place.

Tuskegee Brick

Tuskegee Brick

© Donald E. Armstrong and Material Practices, 2013



26 thoughts on “Tuskegee Institute and the Politics of Bricolage

  1. Tuskegee University is a great historically black college located in Tuskegee, AL. It is a part of the black belt, which is characterized by its rich soil. Booker T. Washington founded this great university in 1881. I am proud to call myself a student here at the prestigious Tuskegee University. He was not given funds from the state to help develop this school. Why not?

  2. I really did learn something new from this article, it was very interesting. Now I know about the Black Belt region and that the Wilcox buildings were the last set of buildings constructed by the students, they surely saved the best for last! Its great that Washington was resourceful of the materials surrounding him. The LCCH was amazing as well because local sharecroppers could finally have a sense of ownership and could say that they built the house they lived in. In the article it says that money was made from locally sold bricks but didn’t say where the money went. Was the money used to purchase more materials or did the students continue to used to raw materials on campus or nearby?

  3. What an amazing vision Booker T. Washington was able to make come true during a time of inequality. Where did the digging for the clay to make bricks happen on the campus? From looking at the topography on campus, one can conclude most of the clay was taken from what is known as the valley today. Its proximity is near the original part of campus in between the Carver Museum and White Hall. Could of made the campus reach a LEAD certification by today’s standards.

  4. Very interesting read! Why were the edges and corners of bricks first made by the students slumped or rounded, was it because the students had limited experience with masonry so the quality of work wasn’t very impressive or was it on the school not having the funds to purchase the necessary tools?

  5. Interesting article about our school. In the paragraph about the brick yards it reads; “In the brick yards, students tempered clay, formed green bricks and fired them in kilns.” What are kilns?

  6. I knew about the Tuskegee students making bricks while Washington was principal of the school, but I never knew about the handmade concrete masonry units during Patterson’s time as president. Which do you think would be more efficient today: handmade building materials or manufactured materials? I feel like it would be less costly to use factory-made materials.

  7. I love reading blogs like this because it REALLY make me appreciate how great Tuskegee University is itself. Things like this constantly reminds/inspires me why I chose Tuskegee. I wish I was bad in the day to actually watch Tuskegee progress to what it it today. But what can we do as a university to help preserve and improve this outstanding art of Bricolage?

  8. Interesting, did not know that the Tuskegee students had such access to machines, making their masonry a hybrid process. as there any praticular reason why the program continued for the 15 years after Washigntons death? was the demand for buildings in and around campus still high enough to have students buildning their own school? or was it jus to continue to allow students to pay for the education?

  9. What is it that gives these hand crafted bricks its long gevity versus the machine made bricks which can be damaged fairly easily?

  10. Another interesting account of the beginnings of Tuskegee University as it refers to the making of the hand made bricks for the buildings on campus. Was there any particular reason as to why the bricks for the buildings on campus were not continued to be made by the students?

  11. I enjoy this articles but why did the stop the first phase of masonry self-manufacturing on the campus? I felt like it could of still of been going on to this day

  12. Very intriguing article. As Washington and Patterson found ways to better the school and community they in turn made landmarks in the rich history of Tuskegee. Is this practice of brick building a recurring factor in many HBCU’s and there surrounding community or unique to Tuskegee

  13. So because of President Frederick D. Patterson sharecroppers had a chance to live on their own mean not relying on the white farmers. So it really only takes one person to change history. The brick making taught skills to the student of right work. Does concrete blocks better for building than bricks made by the students?

  14. I’m really impressed with the President Frederick D. Patterson’s work. What are the dimensions for those concrete blocks?

  15. This process of hand made brick and concrete masonry blocks is intriguing. It seems as though the process can be finished within a few steps with repetition for each component. It may be quicker to do it through a manufactured process but there’s so much more quality to doing it by hand. You’re learning a true trade as old as time itself. Looking at it from an enriching standpoint, is there an opportunity that we may be able to reproduce bricks and concrete masonry blocks by hand as a part of the class? If not the class then the the department as a whole? To take it further, could be get the community involved and make it available on a specific schedule and give the children and adults an opportunity to be trained in brick and concrete masonry block making by hand?

  16. Interesting Article!!! the one point that caught my attention was how he was able to make a deal with the students so that with their help building the school , their tuition and room and board would be paid for. and in the process taught the students trade skills that would help them in the future. Wouldn’t Booker .T and the students caught trouble from the confederates in Montgomery during their construction of the campus

  17. AWESOME ARTICLE!! Its amazing how much rich history Tuskegee has, what would you consider the deciding factor on how you would make the brick?

  18. I think that it is really interesting that students had the opportunity to learn hands on skills like this. Not only did they learn a craft but they were able to actually utilize what they learned and help make the bricks for their school and homes within the community. At what point did the University stop this program? I feel that the school should look into possibly starting programs like this in the future.

  19. A humbling yet insightful read about the history of our campus. Given the precedent Tuskegee Normal School had set, the question i believe needs to be asked is why have both the campus and surrounding area decayed to level a equivalent of where it began?

  20. Reading this blog took me back to my freshman year in architect studio when we were assigned to design a structure based on a passage from Up From Slavery. This blog helped inform me on some things i never knew like the fact that other materials other than bricks were manufactured on campus in 1883. Where did they find the materials to manufacture other building materials?

  21. A wonderful article! It makes me proud to be a part of an institution with such a strong history. How were the students of Tuskegee able to lay bricks with such accuracy?

  22. This article was great it gave me a lot of insight about Tuskegee history. Why did they stop the bricolage program? And if we started it again, how can we give the program more exposure?

  23. Tuskegee University, founded in 1881 by Booker T. Washington, is a great school. Why do we not receive funds from the state.

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