Pioneering Architects: The McKissack Family
Fewer than one in five new architects identify as racial or ethnic minorities, and just about two in five are women, according to the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards. As we work to achieve a future of greater equity, diversity, and inclusion in the profession, we can learn important lessons in reckoning with the past. The Pioneering Architects series celebrates the legacy of architects who overcame unimaginable obstacles. In sharing their stories, we aim to pay overdue tribute to their talents, honor their courage, and learn from their experiences.
It’s rare to find a family that has been in the same business since before the Civil War, but the McKissacks are one such exceptional family.
Moses McKissack, brought to the United States from West Africa in 1790 as an enslaved person, learned the building trade while working as a brickmaker at a construction company run by his owner, John McKissack.
Moses eventually received his freedom and married a Cherokee woman. He taught his son, Gabriel Moses II, the construction business, and Moses II eventually became a famous craftsman in Pulaski, Tenn., known for his spiral staircases and intricate construction details. He also aided local firms with architectural drawings, design, and construction, according to Black history project Blackpast.
Moses II's son, Moses III, also got his start in the construction trades, founding the McKissack Company in Pulaski in 1905. He and his brother Calvin enrolled in correspondence school and became registered architects in 1922, when the state of Tennessee began requiring builders to be licensed and registered. The two men became the first licensed Black architects in the Southeastern United States, and went into business together.
“They were [both] licensed in Tennessee, and we have a letter from the governor saying that they should be licensed in other states,” says Deryl McKissack, president and CEO of architecture and engineering firm McKissack and McKissack, today based in Washington, D.C. “By the early '40s, they were licensed throughout the Southeast. They designed a lot of the historically Black colleges and universities [in the region] – at one time, there were 110 of them nationwide. Our family has worked on about 30 of those universities and colleges.” Those projects included the library at Tennessee State University (1927). Their work during this period also included several public schools across the state built through the Works Progress Administration in the early 1930s.
“Back in the day, they were doing design-build way before we coined it ‘design-build’ in the last 30 or 40 years. 100 years ago, that’s how they did it. They would draw something and just build it,” Deryl says.
One of the growing firm’s largest projects came in 1942 in the form of a $5.7 million contract to design and build the 99th Pursuit Squadron Airbase in Tuskegee, Ala., the training grounds for the Tuskegee airmen. At the time, it was the largest federal contract ever awarded to an African American-owned firm. McKissack says that the Airmen’s story was less well-known then than it is today, and it was given publicity, in part, by a visit to the airbase from First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
Deryl McKissack never knew her grandfather. But, she says, he was thrown into the family business as a child in much the same way that she was.
“Learning the construction side, he probably said, ‘Well, I can be an architect.’ And that’s what led him to go to corresponding school.”
“The same is true of my dad; he had six brothers,” she continues. “I don’t think he necessarily thought that he was going to end up being the chosen one to carry the business on, but he worked very closely with his father and uncle and was kind of their water boy.”
Calvin McKissack died in 1968, and Deryl’s father, William DeBerry McKissack, the youngest son of Moses III and his wife Leatrice Buchanan McKissack, led the firm. After William’s death in 1988, Leatrice became the firm’s CEO, managing contracts for projects that included the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee.
Deryl grew up at the firm. “My father took me to the office every Saturday since I was six, and he made it fun,” she says. “[My family] shaped my career because they made it look exciting, and they seemed to always have fun with it. It’s a family legacy, and what else would I do? Why not do what my family’s been doing for generations?” Deryl and her twin sister Cheryl graduated from Howard University in 1983 – “My father said I could go to school anywhere in the world, but he was only going to pay for Howard,” Deryl says – with civil engineering degrees, and today Deryl’s firm has offices in Baltimore, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Miami, and Atlanta. Her firm’s projects include the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial and the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Her sister Cheryl runs a general contracting firm, also under the family name, based in New York.
Over 100 years later, the trailblazing legacy that Moses I, II and III leave behind is one of perseverance. Even today, only 7% of registered architects in the United States are African American.
“I look at the obstacles that I go through now in 2021 as an African American and a woman, and I can only imagine what they went through in 1905 and prior,” Deryl says. “It’s an inspiration to others that you, too, can do it. You can start a business against all odds.”