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


Sterling Doucette (General Contractor/Carpenter)

When I joined the carpenters' local, I was 13 years old. They had two carpenters locals. They had a black local and they had a white local. . . . That's before the integration came up. I did my apprenticeship program with carpenters Local 2039 and I completed it with Local 1846.

I started out because of my family, and I like what I do. I got a college education. I was one of the first ones to graduate. First black to graduate from Delgado, and one of the first classes to graduate from Delgado when Delgado integrated. It's just something I like to do. . . . You've got to realize back in those times—back in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s—the only way a black man was going to make a good salary outside of the post office was going to be in construction.

My father and my grandmother is French. I tell you what, we learned [the French language] a little bit on our own, because when the adults start talking behind your back, you always want to hear what they are talking about!

One of the things you have with this skill—we work primarily as carpenters but we are mill carpenters. We learn at an early age to duplicate materials that have decayed from weather or elements or the occasional termite damages. We learn from an early age to re-carve wood to make it match the existing thing that you're dealing with. Well, right now, we have some properties that we are working with the Historic Commission on and we have to duplicate the same thing they had there.

Well, I'm proud of all my work, but there is one major project we did for the YMCA. This was the old black library that was built in 1802. It's on Phillips. I redid that building. The roof structure was burnt completely down, and we had to restructure that roof including the steel beams. We had contractors that walked away from the project, and I was working as a consultant for Hewitt-Washington and I took over the job as a contractor. We had to find old timbers that were taken out of discarded buildings and make up the beams and make up the decorative overhangs. We had to get some stuff way from Mississippi to restructure that roof, but it came out beautiful. We had to refurbish the old bays, brought them to the mills shop and worked them out, putting glass in them. That is one job I put on top of all the others.

We have a dying trade. It's hard to find young people that want to follow in the footsteps that we followed in. I'm lucky that my son has followed my footsteps and he's working pretty good in the construction field. But one of the problems we find as a general contractor, is finding capable and qualified employees to work. No matter what the salary is. . . . One of the reasons for that is that when these classes were taught in the public school system, you had qualified people and tradesmen [teaching]. You could get a kid interested in a trade if you had them in an industrial arts class where they had sawhorses and so forth and so on. He's making jewelry boxes. He gets the skill of using power tools and when he comes out of school, he has a trade because everybody can't be a doctor or a lawyer. Everybody is not going to be computer literate. So I feel right now these kids today are not trained in school for these crafts, for brick laying, plastering, or any other field. It's a dying trade and we are dying off every day. Out trades is getting narrower and narrower.

Sterling Doucette 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.