Black History Month Spotlight: McKissack & McKissack, Part One of Two

Moses McKissack III, first CEO of McKissack & McKissack

Moses McKissack III, first CEO of McKissack & McKissack

McKissack & McKissack is an African American architecture and engineering firm based for many years in Nashville, and now based in New York City and Washington, D.C. Founded in 1905, the first African-American-owned architectural firm in the United States is the oldest minority-owned architecture and engineering firm in the country, by brothers Moses McKissack III and Calvin Lunsford McKissack, natives of Pulaski, Tennessee.

Moses entered the architecture trade by working as an apprentice to a builder in Pulaski who hired him in 1890 to assist with architectural designs, drawings and construction work. He and Calvin obtained architectural degrees through a correspondence course. Between 1895 and 1905, Moses built houses in Decatur, Alabama, and Mount Pleasant and Columbia, Tennessee.

In 1905, he built a new house for the dean of architecture and engineering at Vanderbilt. He opened his first architectural office in Nashville and began designing and building homes in the West End.

The firm’s first major project was the Carnegie Library on the Fisk campus. By 1920, Moses had design clients throughout Nashville.

Calvin started an independent practice in Dallas, Texas in 1912, specializing in design and construction of dormitories and churches. In 1915, he returned to Tennessee, becoming superintendent of industries and a teacher of architectural drawing at the Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial State Normal School (later TSU). Three years later, he joined the faculty of Pearl High School as director of the industrial arts department. In 1921, the McKissack brothers became two of the first registered architects in Tennessee.

In 1922, the brothers established McKissack & McKissack. In 1924, the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A, Inc. hired the firm to design the Morris Memorial Building to house the Sunday School Publishing Board. In 1925, the McKissack firm offices moved into that building.

In 1927, the McKissacks designed the main library of TSU. During the 1930s they received Works Progress Administration contracts to design several public school buildings in the city, including Washington Junior High School, Pearl High School, and Ford Green School. The firm expanded to Alabama in 1941 and Georgia, South Carolina, Florida, and Mississippi in 1943.

In 1942, the firm won a $5.7 million federal government contract to design and build Tuskegee Army Airfield, home to the Tuskegee Airmen, in Tuskegee, Alabama, the largest federal contract ever awarded to a black-owned company. During the 1940s the firm designed public housing projects around the country; Moses was appointed to President Franklin Roosevelt’s White House Conference on Housing Problems; and in 1942 they won the Spaulding Medal, as outstanding Negro business firm in the U.S.

Moses died December 12, 1952; McKissack Middle School was named in his honor in 1954. Calvin remained with the firm until his death in 1968. William DeBerry McKissack, the youngest son of Moses III, then succeeded his uncle as president of the firm. After suffering a stroke, he retired due to illness, and his wife, Leatrice Buchanan McKissack, became chief executive officer.

To be continued next week.