When Marvin Smith graduated from Fairmont Heights Vocational School in 1970, there was a lot of concern for young black men like him who pursued careers in construction.
Racial discrimination was so pervasive that the federal government implemented what was known as the Washington Plan, a system of racial quotas designed to increase the number of black skilled tradesmen.
Ten years later, the plan had failed.
But Smith had not.
These days, he can be found on T Street NW, studying blueprints for the 4,000-square-foot house he is rebuilding. It has four bedrooms, five baths, five chimneys, three stories, a full basement and a dumbwaiter. It is 140 years old, a historic mansion destined to become even more so when its next owners, Jesse L. Jackson and family, move in.
"I feel some pressure to make it great because of who Jackson is," Smith said. "But this is the kind of project I've always wanted to do, so it really doesn't matter who lives here. This will be one fine house when I'm finished."
With his diploma from Fairmont Heights and a reputation as one of the best bricklayers in Maryland, Smith became a general contractor several years ago, making architectural drawings come to life as the builder of houses.
For the Jackson residence, he supervises scores of carpenters, plumbers, painters, electricians, roofers and mechanics.
"There is nothing like being able to work with your hands," Smith said, smoothing out a set of floor plans along a dusty drafting table in the house. "At first, I was making only $2.10 an hour. But when you're doing the work you love, money doesn't matter as much."
When you're doing the work you love, he might have added, money also can be one of the rewards.
"Marvin is one of the best in the market," said George Koropoulos, an owner of M.K. Atlas Inc. construction company and a consultant on the Jackson project. "He has developed a reputation for sensitivity in dealing with the difficult details of historic property reconstruction. That has served him well and will pay off in the future."
Smith's rise to the top of his profession has been a painstaking journey that began, as many bottom rung construction jobs do, with hauling buckets of mortar along scaffolds and lumber up and down ladders.
"It was very hard work, and I suffered a long time," Smith said. "It takes from 15 to 20 years before this thing starts paying off, and throughout those years there is so much up and down."
Smith, 39, said many of his peers tried the construction trades, but discovered that working as helpers and apprentices just wasn't for them. Some left for college and, to his dismay, decided that they no longer wanted to associate with him.
"Some people hold the view that there is something wrong with getting your hands and clothes dirty at work," Smith said. "People compare it to field workers and look down on the trades."
"Unfortunately," Koropoulos added, "many people don't appreciate the long and distinguished history of blacks in the construction industry. In this area, you'll find that when it comes to detailed construction work, the most outstanding skilled craftsmen are black."
Nevertheless, a Washington Plan had to be established to increase black participation in the building trades from 10 percent in 1970 to 26 percent by 1980. The number rose to between 15 and 20 percent before the plan was ended. Its failure was attributed to a variety of causes, both subtle and stark, from persistent racism to lack of interest by young blacks.
"There was a push to develop more black tradesmen when I was getting started, but there was also a big push to get more black men into college," Smith said. "A lot of them chose the white-collar route, which never interested me. Both of my grandfathers were carpenters. Building was in my blood."
After leaving vocational school, Smith distinguished himself as a bricklayer on housing projects owned by First Rising Mount Zion Church and United House of Prayer, both in Northwest Washington.
"He knows what he's doing," said Jim Collins, an electrician. "He's well respected."
For Smith, all this has added up to a comfortable home in Ardmore, which he shares with his wife, Brenda, and two children, Marvin Jr., 13, and Rolanda, 10.
On occasion, he even hires men with college degrees who can't find work in their own fields.