Archie A. Alexander, the first Black graduate of Iowa University who constructed bridges and highways in use today

Stephen Nartey February 02, 2023
Archie Alphonso Alexander. Fair use image

The secret to his success as one of the influential African-American engineers was his ability to enter into interracial collaboration with whites to bid for contracts. This strategy became necessary because racial discrimination against blacks in the 1900s made it difficult for him to break even on the job market on his own.

When he graduated as the only black engineer at Iowa University, no architectural firm will employ him. Archie Alphonso Alexander surmounted these racial barriers and became a colossus in the construction of bridges, highways, municipal power and sewage plants, according to

When he enrolled at the State University of Iowa (later the University of Iowa), his first brush with racism as a black student in the 1990s was with the dean of engineering. He told him he had never encountered an African American who wanted to pursue engineering and would advise him to choose another course. But, this spurred Alexander on to follow his dream.

His love for engineering was evident as a child when he was seen building dams while playing with his siblings. He was 11 years old when his family moved to a small farm on the outskirts of Des Moines. His father got employed as head of custodian at the Des Moines National bank, a respectable role for a black man at the time.

Alexander attended the Oak Park Grammar School in 1905 and completed the Oak Park High School. The expectation at that time among the locals was that a person will bring his education to a close at that level. But, Alexander surprised everyone with his burning desire to go to college. He applied to Highland Park College and later to the Cummins Art School, both in Des Moines.

He gained admission to the College of Engineering at the State University of Iowa in 1908 to materialize his dream. Many lecturers advised him to abandon this pursuit but as the only black engineering student, he was determined to make history.

He saw attempts to dissuade him as an encouragement to excel with sterling academic performance. He pushed himself the extra mile by doing part-time jobs and studying additional courses to enable him to graduate.

But, at some point in time, he was tempted to believe his lecturers were right. No local engineering firm was prepared to recruit him. He had to look for jobs as a laborer in a steel shop at Marsh Engineering which paid him 25 cents an hour.

He moved up the ladder when a bridge construction company in Iowa and Minnesota employed him. Here he earned $70 a week. In 1914, he resigned from the job and established his own company, A.A. Alexander Inc. He started with clients in minority groups who offered him modest contracts.

It was not until 1917 that he entered into an interracial partnership with George F. Higbee whom he had worked with at Marsh Engineering. They won a $1.2 million contract in 1927 to construct a central heating and generating station for the University of Iowa which was functional as in the 2000s. He won many contracts to build specialized bridges, highways and towering infrastructure to become a famous black architect.

Alexander was born on May 14, 1888, in Ottuma, Iowa. He was one of the eight children of Price Alexander and Mary Hamilton Alexander. He resided in a heavily populated white company with only 500 blacks.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: February 2, 2023


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