By Barney Blakeney
In 2014 professional brick mason Allen Roper planned to retire the following year. That was five years ago. He had one regret about the 53-year career in the trade that provided a comfortable living for him and his family – he regretted at retirement he was among the last of a dying breed of Black brick masons in Charleston. He still has that regret as he prepares to leave the profession at the end of this year.
In 2014 Roper lamented that he saw few young Blacks willing to enter the lucrative profession. His three sons who each have thriving careers outside brick masonry won’t continue the brick masonry, stucco and concrete business he’s built over the past 23 years. All of his employees, whose numbers vary depending on the contracts he has, live in neighboring areas such as Eutawville, Smoaks and Walterboro. “I can’t find anybody local to do the work!” he exhorts.
Roper follows a tradition of tradesmen that includes brick masons such as his uncle and older brother who followed others from previous generations of his family. But young Blacks, including his sons, see their futures in less physically demanding professions, said the 1966 Gresham Meggett High School graduate. “Everything’s gone, the back, the knees – and after this year I’ll be gone,” quipped Roper.
But he recognizes the serious implications of fewer Blacks in trades. For the past 23 years he’s built a business that regularly employed some 22 people who mostly look like him. Though he does some residential work, most of what he does is commercial. He considers the work he’s performed at Joe Riley Stadium, Citadel and Northwoods malls and in downtown Charleston part of the artisan culture perpetuated by Black tradesmen since the founding of Charleston. He wants to pass on that skill and knowledge to another generation of Black tradesmen.
He’s tried to give his business away although it’s in demand to the point he turns away some business. He’s had only one taker – a young man who lives in Goose Creek, but is without personal transportation. However, “But it’s time to go. It’s time to give it up,” said Roper rubbing his brow.