In a field dominated by men, one Black woman has emerged as a towering figure and her footprint is being felt across the United States. Deryl Mckissack, a civil engineer by training, leads one of the most successful Black-owned architectural firms in the country: McKissack & McKissack.
McKissack & McKissack can be traced back to her great-great-grandfather, Moses McKissack, who was brought to the US as a slave from Ghana, West Africa. Moses learned the act of building as an enslaved man from his supervisor and passed down the craft to generations after him in his family after he earned his freedom, laying down the foundation for what would become the first black-owned architectural company in the 1900s.
Mckissack’s great-great-grandfather’s contracting firm was continued and expanded by her grandfather, Tennessee’s first licensed Black architect, and later her father. McKissack & McKissack has now grown to become a fierce competitor in the country, employing over 140 people and established in six states in the US.
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The firm’s well-known portfolio includes the Obama Presidential Center, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the George H.W. Bush Library Foundation, and the Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson and Martin Luther King, Jr. memorials. These structures, arguably, help Americans and tourists to understand how history and civic engagements impact the nation.
These monuments reflect the contributions of Mckissack’s family to shaping the nation’s capital. McKissack & McKissack, in 2019, was selected by Engineering News-Record as a Top 50 Program Management and a Top 100 Construction Management-for-Fee firm.
Growing up, Mckissack knew civil engineering would be part of her life. At age 6, she and her twin sister had mustered the act of drawing and by age 13, her dad was using their drawings. “I have never wanted to do anything other than what I’m doing,” Mckissack told Fox43.com. “So I was laser-focused. I never thought about running away.”
Of all her significant projects, being awarded the contract to build the National Museum of African American History and Culture was a “crown jewel” for her. “There’s so many things that African Americans have done for this country and contributed to this country that have been missed,” Mckissack said. “It’s continuing to capture the stories and so many parts of our history that have been removed unfairly. So for us to be part of that, I’m sure my ancestors are super happy.”
She continued: “We’re the oldest African American architectural firm in the country. I thought about how my ancestors would feel knowing I would work on the National Mall.”
She knew the terrain was hard for minorities including women. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labour statistics, Blacks are underrepresented in architecture, engineering and construction. But that did not deter her from pursuing the path of generations before her.
“AEC was a homogenous industry when I started McKissack & McKissack,” she said. “It was hard for minorities, let alone a Black woman, to be heard as a member of someone else’s staff,” she further noted, adding that: “So when I decided to go out on my own, I had to figure out how to get in the room, meet potential clients and establish strong relationships that would lead to new business opportunities because people usually hire who they know.”
Mckissack and her sister went to Harvard University where she majored in engineering. Her first job was evaluating flood insurance studies for Dames & Moore but soon realized it wasn’t something she wanted to do. She wanted to be on the field managing construction projects and not to be sitting behind a desk in an office all day.
She was later recruited by Harvard University to manage facilities for nearly two years. She decided to establish her own company after being in the corporate world for over four years. It was also partly because she felt her voice was not being heard.
With just $1,000, she opened her own company, named McKissack & McKissack of Washington, in 1990. “I used the family name for my business because the name was known for architecture throughout the country,” Mckissack said. “My business was started out of my own internal passion to build a business on my own. I had worked for other companies, and I wanted to see if I could be successful in building the right company.”
One of the challenges for her remains being the only black woman in the room or at the table. Then there is the constant judgment of her competence.
“For instance, we’ve done major work on landmarks and the nation’s most popular museums. They’re all on the National Mall. And because McKissack & McKissack is headed by a Black woman, we’re still questioned about our capabilities when we go after large jobs.
“I feel like a lot of the industry is always looking for us to make a mistake, so we’re held to an almost impossible standard—flawless and excellent performance. But the majority of firms make mistakes all the time; they even default. But if I make one mistake, I feel like I’m hurting all the women- and minority-owned firms who come behind me,” she told Blackbusiness.
Also, a number of banks have turned her down due to the background of her company. “Finally, one bank came through, but they made my husband, who has nothing to do with my business, come to the bank with me,” she said. “He knew nothing about my business at all. Banks put minority firms through a lot more scrutiny to borrow much less money.”
Mckissack wants Black professionals to not underestimate themselves. She wants them to build confidence and chart a new path as she was taught by her ancestors. For her, she has been successful because she didn’t allow the struggles of her family and the Black race to define her.