McKissack & McKissack Company (1905- )

McKissack and McKissack Construction Site, Chicago, 2015
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McKissack &McKissack is the oldest African American-owned architecture, construction, and engineering firm in the United States. The firm’s history began when Scotsman John McKissack, the owner of a construction and brick building company in West Tennessee, purchased an enslaved West African Ashanti ancestor (1790–1865). John McKissack named the Ashanti, Moses, and taught him the building trade.

After receiving his freedom, Moses married a Cherokee woman. From this marriage came several children, including Gabriel Moses II who learned the construction trade.  Gabriel Moses II settled in Pulaski, Tennessee, around 1890 and soon became a famous craftsman known throughout the region because of his spiral staircases and intricate construction details. Local construction firms also hired Moses II to assist with architectural drawings, design, and construction.

Gabriel Moses II had two sons, Moses McKissack III (1879–1952) and Calvin Lunsford McKissack (1890–1968). They were educated at the Pulaski Colored High School and later at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. They decided to start the McKissack Company in Pulaski in 1905 but then moved the firm to Nashville the same year. Among their major designs were the home of the dean of architecture and engineering at Vanderbilt (1905) and the Carnegie Library at Fisk University (1908).

In 1922 Tennessee for the first time required builders to be licensed and registered. In order to meet this requirement, both brothers obtained architectural degrees through a correspondence course. When they passed the Tennessee license exam in 1922, they were among the first registered architects in the state. With their new credentials, they created the partnership of McKissack & McKissack, Architects. Their most important projects as architects were the library at Tennessee State University (1927) and several public schools across the state in the early 1930s built through the Works Progress Administration (WPA). In 1942 the firm won its largest project in its twenty-year history, a $5.7 million U.S. government contract to design and build Tuskegee Army Airfield, the training site of the Tuskegee Airmen. By 1945 the firm obtained licenses to work in Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Florida, and Mississippi.

The McKissack brothers were also community leaders. Moses served a director of the National Negro Business League of America, a stockholder in the Penny Savings Bank in Birmingham, Alabama, and a member of President Roosevelt’s White House Conference on Housing Problems. Calvin served as president of the Negro Board of Trade and a trustee at Fisk University.

After the death of Calvin McKissack in 1968, William DeBerry McKissack, the youngest son of Moses III and his wife, Leatrice Buchanan McKissack, led the firm until William’s death in 1988. Leatrice McKissack then became the CEO of McKissack and McKissack.  As CEO, she managed contracts for projects at Meharry Medical College, Howard University, and the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee. In 1990 President George H.W. Bush gave her the National Female Entrepreneur of the Year Award at a White House ceremony. After she retired and closed the Nashville office in 2002, twin daughters Cheryl and Deryl, both graduates of Howard University with civil engineering degrees in 1983, continued the legacy.

Deryl McKissack opened McKissack & McKissack in Washington, D.C. She eventually expanded the offices to Baltimore, Chicago, Dallas, Texas, Los Angeles, Miami, and Atlanta. Among her numerous contracts are the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial, and improvements to the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials and the U.S. Treasury Building. The firm has also worked on projects for the Los Angeles Unified School District, the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and AT&T.

Cheryl McKissack opened the New York office of McKissack and McKissack. Her projects included the US Airways International Terminal at the Philadelphia International Airport, the Lincoln Financial National Football League Stadium for the Philadelphia Eagles, the University of Pennsylvania Hospital, and the World Trade Center and Columbia University, both in New York City. Both Cheryl and Deryl continue to serve as CEOs of their respective offices. For more than a century and across five generations, McKissack & McKissack has grown to be a multi-million dollar company.