February 27, 2018

Black History Month is dedicated to celebrating the achievements of African Americans and recognizing their impact in shaping the history of the United States. From Garrett Morgan, who some refer to as “The Father of Transportation Technology,” to Robert Robinson Taylor, considered to be America’s first academically trained and credentialed Black architect, African Americans have made tremendous contributions to our built environment. Many aren’t aware that the first black-owned architecture firm was established by Moses McKissack and his brother Calvin in Nashville, Tennessee in 1905.

If you’ve been to Nashville, you’ve likely seen some of the work of McKissack & McKissack throughout the city. Several are listed on the National Register of Historic Places including Carnegie Library on the Fisk University campus, the George Hubbard House, the Morris Memorial Building and Capers CME Church.

Carnegie Library at Fisk University; By Nyttend (Own work) , via Wikimedia CommonsGeorge Hubbard House; By Andrew Jameson (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia CommonsMorris Memorial Building; By Andrew Jameson (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia CommonsCapers CME Church; By Andrew Jameson (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

When Tennessee instituted a registration law for architects in 1921, the McKissack brothers became two of the first registered architects in the state. Leadership in the McKissack family runs deep and the family legacy continues today. Following the deaths of Moses (1952) and Calvin (1968), William DeBerry McKissack – Moses’ youngest son – succeeded his uncle Calvin as the firm’s president. Upon his retirement after suffering a stroke in 1983, his wife Leatrice Buchanan McKissack became CEO of McKissack & McKissack and McKissack Contracting Company.

And they didn’t leave out the engineering side of the house. William and Leatrice had three daughters, all of whom became professional engineers. Twins Deryl and Cheryl now head national architectural, engineering and construction services firms McKissack & McKissack based out of New York and McKissick, based out of Washington, D.C. respectively.
Valerie Franklin, AIA, NOMA, NCARB and Asia Allen, AIA, NOMA

While they have moved their offices outside of Nashville, they continue to be an inspiration to the African American community in the city. Currently, the state of Tennessee has only two registered and practicing black women architects – and BOTH work at Gresham, Smith and Partners! In 2014, after many of life’s turns, I became the 3rd registered female black architect in the state and am proud of my colleague Asia Allen who became the 4th. What really makes the history of the McKissack family special to me was the opportunity I was given to work with Leatrice McKissack during a summer internship with McKissack & McKissack & Thompson in 1992. That experience was no doubt a catalyst for me to continue on and perservere to pursue my licensure.

As Black History Month comes to a close, who are other African Americans in the architecture/ engineering industry who have inspired you? Please share their stories in the comments.