Every industry has their heroes, those who have gone before and broken down barriers to lead the way for others to follow, and plumbing is no different. For many years in the United States plumbing was seen as a job only for white men, and while they certainly did a tremendous amount of the foundational work to establish this nation’s network of plumbing, there have been many others that have come behind them with valuable contributions as well.
The 1950’s was a time of tremendous growth throughout the country following the recovery from the Great Depression and this opened the door for many people to get into new industries. This included the plumbing industry. In 1953 Henry Brown became the first African American to get certified as a master plumber. He had spent years in service to the U.S. Army and in the Civilian Conservation Corps after which he decided to try his hand as a plumber. His extensive military training had prepared him well for this field and he excelled during his 5 year apprenticeship, after catching some lucky breaks with friends who were able to connect him with a plumber willing to teach him. He eventually began his own plumbing business and after vowing to “never turn down someone in need” his business grew and expanded adding several additional plumbers. He ran the company for 26 years.
Also in the early 1950’s a young woman named, Lillian Ann Baumbach Jacobs, became the first female master plumber. She grew up helping her father with his plumbing business and at 21 decided to take the test to become a master plumber. She tested with 6 other men and only she and 1 of the men passed the test. She ended up getting quite a reputation for being so good at her trade and eventually had her own radio broadcast and magazine articles titled “Helpful Plumbing Hints for Housewives”. She became even more of a novelty when she continued to run her plumbing business even after marrying and having 2 daughters. Her fame resulted in her becoming the poster child for local schools looking to recruit women into trade jobs.
In the late 1980’s another wall was torn down when Adrienne Bennett became the first female African American master plumber. Her love of math and science made her want to conquer all areas of plumbing. She became a journeyman plumber, a master plumber, a project manager, a plumbing inspector and a code enforcement officer. Eventually she began her own contracting company which is still going strong today in the Detroit, MI area. She has said that she had to overcome not only the dirty, rough, physically demanding parts of her job but also the hostility and bullying she’s faced from male peers. Through it all she has come through it committed to rebuilding the city she grew up in and helping to be part of Detroit’s recovery.