February is Black History Month. It’s our opportunity to elevate the stories of past Black leaders and visionaries and take time to recognize major achievements that have been minimized. Every industry observes Black History Month in its own way; I’d like to call out some amazing people of color who hailed from the construction industry.
It would be dishonest to start a post about Black leaders in construction without first reflecting on the number of Black enslaved people whose forced labor built American landmarks such as the Capitol Building and the White House, and whose names are lost to history. It’s as important to acknowledge the sadder parts of our origins and the continued work to be done as it is to plan for a better, more equitable future.
In June 1968, civil rights leader Whitney Young was invited to speak at the American Institute of Architects (AIA) conference here in my home base of Portland, Oregon. In his speech, he called out continued racism in the field. His speech was inspiring, and brought about great action: the Ford Foundation established scholarships and the AIA itself created a task force on equal opportunity. It was a landmark speech in fighting discrimination.
Lewis Latimer was a brilliant inventor and engineer. Born in 1848, his most notable achievement was the invention of the carbon filament, a vital component of the lightbulb, and with that played a huge part in getting electricity into the homes of Americans. He also helped Alexander Graham Bell draft a patent for the invention of the telephone. But he wasn’t just a backup dancer to Edison and Bell: he designed an early version of an air conditioning unit (something I’m thankful for every August) and an improved railroad car bathroom.
There are a large number of influential Black architects in our history books, but one astounding story emerges in the McKissack architectural dynasty. In 1790, Moses McKissack was a slave owned by a contractor who used him as a builder. Moses passed the building trade to his children, and Moses’s grandsons became licensed architects. Brothers Moses McKissack III and Calvin Lunsford McKissack founded the first Black-owned architectural firm in 1905. In present day, McKissack & McKissack architectural firm is still going strong with Moses III’s granddaughter Deryl McKissack at the helm, making it the oldest minority-owned architectural and engineering firm in the country.
Young, Latimer, and the McKissack family are leaders within this industry, but with Blacks only representing 6% of the construction workforce, we have more work to do to bring equity. Black History Month encourages us to reflect on the past and plan for a more equity future.