McKissack and McKissack (1905-)

Founded:

Nashville, Tennessee, USA

Residences:

  • Nashville, Tennessee

Trades:

  • Architect

NC Work Locations:

Styles & Forms:

Gothic Revival

The firm of McKissack and McKissack in Nashville, Tennessee, is cited as the nation’s first black-owned professional architectural firm and the oldest still in practice; it continues today as a family firm of national scope. Organized in 1905 by brothers Moses and Calvin L. McKissack, the original firm practiced mainly in Tennessee, but it also took commissions throughout the South, including Beebe Memorial CME Church (1927) in Washington, N.C., which was built for the first CME congregation in North Carolina. Whether the firm designed other churches in North Carolina has not been established.

The McKissack brothers are covered at length in Dreck Spurlock Wilson (ed.), African American Architects: A Biographical Dictionary, 1865-1945 (2004). Moses McKissack III (1879-1952) and Calvin Lunsford McKissack (1890-1968), both natives of Pulaski, Tennessee, were the sons and grandsons of trained builders. Moses, the founder of the firm, studied at Pulaski Colored High School, while Calvin was educated at Barrows school in Massachusetts and Fisk University in Nashville. Both obtained architectural degrees through correspondence courses.

Before the two formed their partnership, Moses McKissack built numerous structures in Alabama and Tennessee, and Calvin McKissack practiced in Texas and back in Tennessee. In 1922, shortly after Tennessee passed an architectural licensing act in 1921, the brothers became the first registered black architects in Tennessee, and they formed the partnership of McKissack and McKissack.

The firm was often involved in church and church-related architecture, and their projects gained favorable attention in the Nashville Tennessean. The Tennessean of April 6, 1923, reported on construction of a building for the Sunday School Publishing Board of the National Baptist convention of the U. S. A., which was predicted to be the “largest negro publishing house in the world. “ Moses McKissack, “negro,” had been selected as architect “in conjunction with Marr & Holman, as consulting architects.” The same newspaper reported on December 2 of the progress of the 4-story brick and steel building, “one of the finest negro buildings in the entire United States,” for which “McKissack and McKissack, negro firm of architects, drew the plans.” The Tennessean commented on August 17, 1924, that the building, to be known as the Morris Memorial, “will be one of the outstanding affairs of its kind in the country, having been constructed for a negro organization, by a negro construction company, following the plans of negro architects.” It was completed in 1925.

In the same period, the _Tennessean_of March 29, 1925, announced that McKissack and McKissack had drawn plans for a large brick and stone church for the Capers Chapel C. M. E. Church (Christian Methodist Episcopal) in Nashville for a black congregation founded before the Civil War. The new church was to be “along the lines of Grecian architecture, with a domed auditorium.” The Christian Methodist Episcopal Church (Colored Methodist Episcopal until the 1950s) is a historically black denomination within the Methodist tradition; it was established in 1870 in Jackson, Tennessee, with support from the Methodist Episcopal Church, South to serve as an alternative to African Methodist denominations that originated in the North but had established a presence in the South.

In the 1920s the McKissack firm gained the commission for Beebe Memorial CME Church in Washington, N. C., likely through denominational connections. Beebe Memorial was built for a congregation begun in 1872 and is cited as the first of several CME congregations in North Carolina.

McKissack and McKissack advertised regularly as “Registered Architects” (Tennessean, October 21, 1925, November 7, 1927). Both brothers were active in Nashville’s Negro Board of Trade (Tennessean, October 22, 1928). Reports of their architectural projects continued in the Tennessean for several years, typically citing them as the “well-known architects, McKissack & McKissack,” or the “well-known local negro architects” (September 18, 1927; April 14, 1937).

Probably the McKissack brothers’ best-known project was the multi-million dollar federal contract to design the Tuskegee Army Airfield, famous for the Tuskegee Airmen. According to the firm’s website, this was the largest federal contract given to an African American firm up to that time (1942). After the deaths of the founders, the firm continued under the leadership of family members, including Moses’s son William’s wife, Leatrice Buchanan McKissack. The firm, now in the fifth generation of the family, opened an office in Washington, D. C. in 1990 and has expanded to a national practice with offices in Chicago and Los Angeles and elsewhere, under the leadership of Leatrice and William’s daughter, Deryl McKissack (https://www.mckinc.com/about).

  • “Beebe Memorial CME Church,” https://www.beebememorialnc.com/.
  • Reginald F. Hildebrand, The Times Were Strange and Stirring: Methodist Preachers and the Crisis of Emancipation (1995).
  • Philip Thomason, “Calvin Lunsford McKissack” and “Moses McKissack III,” in Dreck Spurlock Wilson, ed., African American Architects: A Biographical Dictionary, 1865-1945 (2004).
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  • Beebe Memorial CME Church

    Contributors:
    Dates:
    1927
    Location:
    Beaufort County
    Street Address:
    427 N. Respass St., Washington, NC
    Status:
    Standing
    Type:
    Religious
    Note:
    The cornerstone reads, "Beebe Memorial/ C. M. E. Church/Organized 1872./Erected 1927./Rev. G. R. Galphin. P. C./ McKissack & McKissack, Archt's." The author would like to thank Dell Upton for calling attention to this church and its cornerstone and the importance of the architects, and for a photograph of the cornerstone. The congregation is named for its founder, Joseph A. Beebe, a formerly enslaved shoemaker and minister who established North Carolina's first Colored Methodist Episcopal congregation at this site. For more on the history of the CME church generally, see Reginald F. Hildebrand, The Times Were Strange and Stirring: Methodist Preachers and the Crisis of Emancipation (1995).

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