Marshall brothers were master builders

Published 7:48 pm Saturday, April 8, 2017

Two men who risk being lost by time were brothers, James and David Marshall, master builders with homes, churches, and a museum as their personal legacy in Vicksburg.

Largely self-educated, they had learned their craft as apprentices to older carpenters, but became so practiced and expert themselves they could plot an inch just by looking. They could build anything you could show them a picture of — things  never done before they were asked. For instance, they built easels, a word they’d never known or used, so that The Jacqueline House could open with proper displays in 1995. They were geniuses in their trade – and doers.  

Over the years, they became the faces of black residential ownership. They made and maintained ties with children that they had built homes for.

James was quieter, the more private of the two. David, though, was loud and sociable. You always knew when he was on the scene. For a long time in his life he loved the blues and travelled a lot to enjoy it. But years before he died, he abandoned it cold-turkey, figuring that as a genuine Christian, that kind of music was just wasted time. Redemption had been had.

But in the pantheon of heroes we’ve established for ourselves, their names aren’t usually included. Activists and others are preferred. But the Marshall Brothers are emblematic of the many others who stayed on salary all their lives because they never made “contractor” or acquired financial backing to set up businesses themselves. The systems that excluded – or exploited – them were rigid. And even now, we tend to see those systems as “unpeopled”, where nobody ever really did anything wrong and nobody ever really got hurt. But we know better.

These brothers literally had their hands in places that affected our lives. Harrison Havard told me this morning that they had built his house. I’ve known Harrison all my life. But I never knew that.

Back in 2012, the late Demetris Young Baafi proclaimed on our website, “These brothers built my childhood home in Kings. I seriously remember them.”

Wade White also declared, “I remember (Mr. David Marshall) him tall and always had his hat cocked on his head. I remember him doing work on our house back in the early 70’s!!!” Many people have those memories.

And worship in many churches they built.

And they re-configured the space in The Jacqueline House and re-built the porch outside. They made it what it is today and gave it to all of us. It will have a plaque honoring them.

Reference is often made to the slave construction of Vicksburg’s Old Court House Museum. But note is hardly ever taken of the evidence that affirms it was designed by “a Negro mechanic slave” named John Jackson who also supervised its construction.

Master builders are a tradition in Vicksburg, and they are also a legend.

And James and David — the Marshall Brothers — are a part of it.

Yolande Robbins is a community correspondent for The Vicksburg Post. You may reach her at yolanderobbins@fastmail.com.