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


Evins Thornton (Carpenter/Trade and Industry Instructor)

I went into carpentry because I was inspired by mechanics [master craftsmen] in New Orleans that turned me from haphazard work into a tradesman. I'm going to tell you this too, the black engineers in the city of New Orleans, they were the ones that brought this city out. . . . I could take this house here, you just give me the dimensions, and I could tell you almost—even now—how many 2x4's, 2x6's, 2x8's, etcetera, that it takes to go into this house. I could tell you that. Even after being out [of the profession] twenty years, because it was instilled in my mind by my predecessors. . . . All of those guys are gone on, but the white men respected them so much that those guys could go on the job, and know what they do? They work where they want to work. Nobody come pushing them around. You didn't push them guys around 'cause the white man know that the Negroes, [despite] some of the names they got called, those guys run rings around them. They graduated from Tuskegee Institute School of Engineering. That's where they graduated from. They come back to New Orleans to live. But they had it and I just loved to be around them. They inspired me, and when they found out that they could talk to me, they opened up to me.

When you go into a school, the thing that they hammer into that child from the onset, from getting into high school, from eighth grade on to twelfth grade, they hammer, "We want you to go to college; we want you to go to college." I'm hammering, "I want to teach you how to use your hands. I want you to protect yourself with the manipulative skills of carpentry that I can tell you as a boy [that as a man with skills] you can go out there and make a living, you can go out there and make twenty, thirty dollars an hour!"

One of the things that is needed to be a carpenter and instructor, you have to first look at a pile of lumber out there and you must be able to see that pile of lumber. Not just the house, but seeing it as a home. Seeing children growing up there. When you can do that, you can take up a piece of lumber and lay this house out.

About teaching carpentry for twenty years at Booker T. Washington:

Under my training, see, he [a student] comes to me three years. It's tenth, eleventh, and twelfth grades he comes to me in carpentry. Now, if he finishes those three years with me in carpentry, then they would want to know from me, "Can he handle himself?" If I said, "Yes; he'll go on as an apprentice carpenter, as a first-year apprentice." Or maybe that instructor finds he has a strong ability to handle himself on the job, now, he may put him as a second or third year apprentice. They'll do it that way.

The program was called "T & I." Trade and Industry . . . Training for Industry. This is not industrial art 'cause when a student leaves, when one of my boys leave one of my classes, he went on as an apprentice carpenter in the local carpenters union. With his background, with the teaching that I gave to him in the carpentry class, it was basic that he would be able to handle himself as an apprentice carpenter. The majority of those that did go into it, they did well. . . . If I ever close my eyes for the last time I can say that I did my best with them. There were times that I had to get down, but when I found myself, I found myself standing up like a man and treating them as my students. . . . Many times, even today, in reflection I find that my mind has run back to school. Because I love it. I loved my work. I loved my students.

Evins Thornton 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.