Black History Month Spotlight: Archie A. Alexander

In an era when few African-Americans went to college, the Iowa-born engineer became one of the nation’s most successful businessmen in his field.

Posted: 02/08/2012 04:26 PM EST
Archie A. Alexander

He was one of the most successful Black engineers in an era when few African-Americans attended college, much less majored in the sciences. In a career that began in the 1920s, Archie A. Alexander not only operated one of the most successful engineering firms, but was also a partner in what was a rarity: an interracial company.

As a structural engineer, he designed a number of major projects throughout the country. His firm had offices in Washington, D.C., when it began to receive major contracts for that area. Included in these were the Tidal Basin Bridge and sea wall, completed in 1943. The K Street elevated highway was another project handled by his firm. But perhaps the largest project was the $3.3 million Whitehurst Freeway, which took two years to complete and employed about two hundred workers.

Alexander let it be known that he wanted to be judged by his work and not by his color. Being Black in a predominantly white business field did not seem to hamper his goal of success.

However, he did feel the sting of racism in the District of Columbia when faced with segregated restrooms and drinking facilities, both bearing the labels, “white” and “colored.” Alexander neatly skirted the issue by implementing the use of paper drinking cups and by labeling the two restrooms: “skilled” and “unskilled.”

Alexander was born in Ottumwa, Iowa, in 1888, the son of a janitor and coachman. He initially went to Des Moines College and attempted to join the white-only football team there, but was declined. He subsequently transferred to the State University of Iowa and was permitted to join the football team there, playing as a tackle from 1910 to 1912

In 1912, Alexander graduated from Iowa with a bachelor of science degree in civil engineering. That same year, he was hired as a design engineer by the bridge construction firm, the Marsh Engineering Company of Des Moines.

After two years with Marsh Engineering, in which he had been placed in charge of bridge construction in Iowa and Minnesota, he went into business for himself. The firm, A.A. Alexander, Inc., was a general contracting company with a focus on concrete and steel bridges. Over the years, many of his partners were white engineers as were many of his employees, including his personal secretary.

In 1934, Alexander was appointed as one of a 12-member commission to investigate the social and economic conditions in Haiti. In 1946, he was awarded an honorary doctor of engineering by Howard University.

Alexander had been a Republican all his life, and served as assistant to the chairman of the Republican State Committee in Iowa in 1932 and 1940. He also served in the 1952 presidential campaign for Dwight D. Eisenhower. President Eisenhower later nominated Alexander for the post of governor of the Virgin Islands, serving there from 1955 to 1956.

As governor, Alexander, as a regular Black Horatio Alger who had conquered the adversities of both poverty and race, was the personification of the Protestant work ethic. Alexander had for years run his own private firm without responsibility to a board of directors. It seemed that he believed he would run a country the same way. Alexander was criticized for being too firm with the islanders.

But his health was failing, and he resigned and returned to Des Moines. On January 4, 1958, he died of a heart attack at the age of 70.

Alexander’s achievements were extraordinary, particularly for an African-American man of his era. When he died, he left a trust fund for his wife. Upon her death in 1973, the remaining $315,000 was divided equally for engineering scholarships at the University of Iowa, Tuskegee University and Howard University.


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(Photo: Wikicommons)

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