April 14, 2024

Black Entrepreneur History

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Moses McKissack III & Calvin Lunsford McKissack – Founders of 1st Black-Owned Architectural Firm

Once upon at time in Black Entrepreneur History were two men named Moses McKissack III and his younger brother, Calvin Lunsford McKissack who went on to be the founders of the 1st Black- owned Architectural Firm in the United States of AmericaMcKissack & McKissack – and also the 1st registered Black architects in the state of Tennessee. The architectural firm McKissack & McKissack is also the oldest black-owned architecture and engineering firm in the United States.

See Robert Robinson Taylor - 1st accredited African American in US History from MIT 

Both brothers Moses, III (May 8, 1879) and Calvin (February 23, 1890), were born in Pulaski, Tennessee to father Moses McKissack II and mother Dolly Ann McKissack. Although over ten years apart in age, both brothers first began learning construction and building under their father who learned from his father who was enslaved. Their grandfather’s name was also Moses, and his overseer was a man who owned a contracting business. This was where grandfather Moses was made to learn all there was about laboring in construction and building.

The skills their grandfather learned, he passed to their father and then the father to them. It had become the family’s way of life, therefore, as they grew, so did their natural ability toward construction and building.

In the year 1900, the census showed the family as being close knit, with a full house when the McKissack brothers were still under their father’s roof. Moses was 21 and the eldest child and Calvin was 10 years of age, the youngest. The four siblings between them were all boys. Even their father’s 72 year old brother lived with them at the time.

Moses, III stepped out on his own first being the elder brother after gaining his education at Pulaski Colored High School. He then went to apprentice with James Porter where he learned how to create construction drawings in 1890. From there, he moved and began to prepare drawings for B. F. McGrew and Pitman & Peterson before founding a architecture business office – the McKissack firm – of his very own in 1905 which would end up becoming McKissack & McKissack when his younger brother came aboard in 1922.

His brother Calvin attended Fisk University and then went on to earn his certificate in Architecture from the International Correspondence School in Scranton, Pennsylvania. After that, he went to Dallas, Texas to practice and then went back to Tennessee to teach at the Tennessee Agricultural And Industrial State Normal School.

Calvin became registered in multiple southern states as an architect besides Tennessee, and he also became the 1st executive secretary of the TN State Association of Teachers in Colored Schools.

Now that McKissack & McKissack was in full swing, they were contracted to build churches and buildings in conjunction with churches, however, multitudes of media outlets began to pay close attention to McKissack & McKissack when they were contracted to build the Morris Memorial for the Sunday School Publishing Board of the National Baptist convention of the U. S. A.(1923) This was huge! Not only was it huge but it was to become the largest Black publishing house in the entire world.

Newspapers wrote about this monumental event which was completed in 1925, including the Tennessean, according to NC Architects and Builders:

—“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.”

The Tennessean, cited from NC Architects and Builders

McKissick & McKissick gained the largest contract ever given to an African American architectural firm in 1942 when they were awarded a $5.7 million contract to both design and build the 99th Pursuit Squadron Airbase in the city of Tuskegee, Alabama.


Moses McKissack passed away on December 12, 1952 and his brother Calvin on March 2, 1968. Despite their passing, the brothers taught their descendants.

Moses, III passed down what he knew to his son and in turn, his son passed on the architectural spirit to his daughters. This means that McKissack & McKissack still stands with multiple locations in the United States of America – Chicago, Washington D.C., Texas, and even Los Angeles, California.

They have been noted and ranked multiple times as the Top 100 and Top 50 in the Engineering News-Record Construction Management For-Fee Firms, having had contracts in major developments such as:

  • the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the National Mall
  • the 500,000 SF Building
  • Chicago Public Schools and Housing
  • LA World Airports and LA Transportation Authority
  • contracts with Texas A&M University
  • coordination for design and construction for the National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall.


Year: 1900; Census Place: Civil District 7, Giles, Tennessee; Page: 4; Enumeration District: 0020; FHL microfilm: 1241571

American Architects and Buildings (link)

McKissack & McKissack (link)

NC Architects and Builders (link)