How the McKissack brothers’ architectural firm raked in $5.7m on a federal contract in the 30s

Stephen Nartey April 25, 2023
McKissack & McKissack/Photo credit: McKissack & McKissack

It is a family business that traces its roots to the first Moses McKissack of the West African tribe of Ashanti. A natural-born builder, he possessed a gift that was hidden when he was sold to William McKissack of North Carolina, and got married to his wife, Mirian, in 1822. That union produced 14 children, but it was their ninth child, Gabriel Moses McKissack, who picked up the skill of his father, pursued a career in building homes, and added a touch of excellence to the family tradition.

Gabriel Moses McKissack, also known as Moses McKissack III, was born and educated in Pulaski, and later trained on the job by his father. He moved in 1890 when a Pulaski architect offered him a job to draw, design, and help in building houses, and soon built a reputation for himself as an exceptional craftsman. He began to build homes in Decatur, Alabama, Mount Pleasant, and Columbia, Tennessee, between 1895 and 1905. When he resigned from his job, he built many of the iconic houses in Nashville, including one for the dean of architecture and engineering at Vanderbilt University.

His major work was in 1908 when he was tasked to build a library at Fish University. By the early 1900s, McKissack & McKissack had become a household name in Tennessee, as a result of the architectural licensing act passed in 1921 to allow black architects to operate in the state. Moses went into a partnership with his brother, Calvin L. McKissack, who left an indelible mark on American history, according to the Tennessee Encyclopedia.

Calvin attended Barrows School in Massachusetts as well as Fish University, and assisted in the execution of most of the projects the company carried out. They focused on building education and religious projects, including churches. In the late 1930s, they were awarded a number of federal contracts, the outstanding one being a $5.7 million contract for the construction of the ninety-ninth pursuit squadron air base in Tuskegee, Alabama.

It was designed to train the first African American military pilots, known as the Tuskegee Airmen, who went on to serve with distinction in the war. The successful completion of this project by McKissack & McKissack was a significant milestone in African American history, as it showcased the talent and capabilities of Black architects and builders in the face of systemic racism.

Following the success of the Tuskegee project, McKissack & McKissack went on to work on various other notable projects, including schools, hospitals, and airports, both regionally and nationally. Their innovative designs and commitment to excellence earned them a reputation as respected architects in the industry. Moses and Calvin were pioneers in the field of architecture, particularly for African Americans during a time of racial segregation and discrimination in the United States.

They faced numerous challenges and obstacles due to their race, but their unwavering talent, skill, and determination propelled them to success. Despite facing discrimination and limited opportunities due to racial segregation, the McKissack brothers were determined to excel in their profession. They focused on providing quality architectural services to the African American community, as well as advocating for racial equality in the field of architecture.

Moses McKissack III and Calvin L. McKissack’s legacy as pioneering architects continues to inspire and pave the way for future generations of African American architects and builders. Their contributions to American history and architecture are significant, as they broke barriers, shattered stereotypes, and left an indelible mark on the built environment of the United States. Today, the McKissack & McKissack firm, now led by their descendants, remains a prominent architectural firm and a testament to the enduring legacy of the McKissack brothers’ pioneering spirit and talent.

Last Edited by:Annie-Flora Mills Updated: April 25, 2023


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