Black History Moment: Archie A. Alexander
Archie A. Alexander (May 14, 1888-January 4, 1958) Consulting Engineer: Alexander & Higbee, A.A. Alexander, Inc. and Alexander & Repass; governor of the Virgin Islands of the United States.
I like to focus on different aspects of black history when recounting historical events. Normally, any discussion of black history is replete with those who mounted the call for social progress and equality. I certainly don’t have a problem with recognizing the valiant efforts of these people, but there’s another history that needs to be recognized as well. This history is of lesser known names who nevertheless have left a legacy to follow as well. This is the history of African-American entrepreneurs in America.
Archie Alphonso Alexander was a consulting engineer who started his construction engineering firm in 1914. We’re not talking about constructing houses and things of this nature, but we talking about the construction of fine bridges, viaducts and tunnels—major construction projects. Here are some of the major construction projects Mr. Alexander’s firm was responsible for:
- Tidal Basin Bridge and seawall in Washington DC.
- Washington DC’s Whitehurst Freeway
- The heating plant and power station at the University of Iowa
- An airfield in Tuskegee Alabama
- A 52 acre sewage treatment plan in Grand Rapids MI
- A powerhouse in Columbus, Nebraska
By 1950, Alexander’s firm had completed over 300 projects like this in the majority of the nation’s states and all of this was before set asides or MBE certifications. This occurred in the midst of rampant racism and segregation here in the US. I guess the question is how? How did he do it?
He did it by sheer dint of will and determination. That’s the only way to explain it.
You can read more about Alexander here, but he grew up in the small town of Ottumwa Iowa and moved to Des Moines when he was a teenager. Apparently, there weren’t very many blacks in Des Moines, so he attended an integrated school system and enrolled in the college of engineering at the State University of Iowa. He was warned that engineering was not something he could expect to succeed in as a black man, but he pushed forward anyway graduating with a bachelors in civil engineering in 1912.
Upon graduation, he was rejected for every engineering job he applied for and was forced to take a job as a laborer in the steel shop of Marsh Engineering Company of Des Moines. He worked his way up and when he resigned to strike out on his own in 1914, he was an engineer responsible for bridge construction. Three years later, he was joined by George Higbee, a white colleague from Marsh Engineering, and the firm thrived by specializing in building bridges, viaducts and sewerage systems throughout Iowa until Higbee’s accidental death in 1925. Alexander continued on his own for four years landing substantial contracts before going into another partnership. In the partnerships, Alexander was the outside man engaged in landing contracts and fostering good public relations while his partners attended to the administrative details of running the business. His expertise as both an engineer and a marketer overcame any existing color barriers there were.
All the contracts his firm won were competitively bid in the face of stiff competition. He was once quoted as saying “Some of my competition acts as though they want to bar me. I walk in, throw my cards in and I’m in. My money talks just as loudly as theirs.”
Archie Alexander was truly a black Horatio Alger and for African-American entrepreneurs following in his footsteps, he’s truly an inspiration. Every black child should know about this guy, particularly those with interests in math and engineering.