More Than Just a Trade: Master Craftsmen of the Building Arts


Irvin Fleming (Brick Mason)

Every man in my family was a bricklayer except my daddy, 'cause my daddy died when I was about nine years old. He was paralyzed; he couldn't get around. . . . They [my uncles] helped teach me. I had to buy bricks and mortar. Every Saturday, they wasn't living with me, I was living with their mother and my mother, and every Saturday they'd come and get together, we'd meet in the yard. I had to lay bricks. They wouldn't tell me what was wrong. If I do something wrong, they wait until I lay all the bricks, then they'd tell me I had to tear down, clean the bricks, and re-lay it. . . . I started [working] in '40, it was—1940. I started as an apprentice, because I got my gold card, my fifty year gold card, in [19]70. I was the youngest apprentice and the youngest brick layer [in the Bricklayers Union Number One].

Mr. Martinez was the brick masonry instructor at Albert Wicker School, and later he moved over to Booker Washington. I ended up with his class really. I learned quite a bit from him, 'cause we were friends before. He was living not too far from where I was living. I started teaching at the bricklayer's union...working and teaching at night. When the opening came, I started teaching at Booker Washington in the day, but I still had my classes at night with the union. And I did that until 1980. . . . I retired from there before I retired from the school system.

What we taught was what the kids was really interested in, because they wasn't interested in just subject matter. I used to teach them everything. You had to teach them how to handle their money, what they was going to do, teach them everything. One thing I had to teach my students was, when we first started registering to vote, they couldn't tell how old they was. Because they couldn't, they never was taught this. And they was surprised to know that when we registered to vote, that was one thing they used to qualify you. We used to teach blacks how to vote, because that was one of the questions on the paper, "How old are you today?" Lot of 'em had never come in contact with that before.

It [the school] started changing around, I'd say around 1975. Well, it was the character, see. It was mixed up. Then when they integrated the school, that really messed it up, because they integrated the faculty, but they didn't integrate the student body. So we got teachers that didn't know these kids and kids wasn't used to them. It was a real uproar. I had to manage the whole first floor really. They wasn't paying no mind. They couldn't handle it. And we had been there quite a while then, and we could handle them. So we used to go pitch in and talk to the kids. Things kinda straightened out there at the end, because now I think there's a mixed student body, but still. . . .

Well, every man in the Seventh Ward was really a bricklayer or a tradesman-they were carpenters, plasterers, plumbers, you name it. . . . We worked on weekends. Saturdays and Sundays. Friends of mine and I helped coming up. And that's how we built our houses. . . . The only thing I didn't build, I did favors for the plumbers. When I did brick work for 'em, I told 'em have to give me a good price on plumbing. I had a friend of mine, an electrician, and a friend of mine built the roof. But I was a roofer way back when I was working at Camp Forché [in Harahan]. We built Camp Forché. We used to have a mule hoisting the material to us.

Irvin Fleming was interviewed as part of the New Orleans Building Arts Project. Laura Westbrook edited More than Just A Trade: Master Craftsmen of the Building Arts in 2004 for publication online.