Alexander, Archie Alphonso
Archie Alphonso Alexander
After the dean of the engineering school at the State University of Iowa told him that he had never heard of a Negro engineer and tried to persuade him to find another career choice, Archie Alexander became more determined than ever to pursue his professional goal. Although denied employment with white architectural firms early in his career, Alexander remain steadfast and later became a successful engineer and builder of large-scale construction projects, such as highways, bridges, viaducts, and municipal power and sewage plants. He established his own engineering company, several times entering in interracial partnerships—an unusual venture of that time—and became a wealthy man. He was also a politician and worked for civil rights causes.
Early Interest in Higher Education
Born in Ottuma, Iowa, on May 14, 1888, and one of eight children, Archie Alphonso Alexander was the son of Price Alexander, a janitor and coachman, and Mary Hamilton Alexander. The town of 14,000 residents was predominantly white with only 500 blacks; it included the poor who were both black and white. As young Archie played with his siblings in a creek behind their home, he was especially interested in building dams. When Archie was only eleven years old, the family relocated to a small farm on the outskirts of Des Moines. Price Alexander was hired as head custodian at the Des Moines National Bank, then a prestigious post for a black man. Young Archie studied at Oak Park Grammar School and in 1905 graduated from Oak Park High School. In the view of local residents, the son of a janitor, whether black or white, was expected to end his education at that level; thus Archie's determination to attend college was surprising. Nevertheless, Archie Alexander continued his studies for one year at the now-defunct Highland Park College and then the Cummins Art School, both in Des Moines.
Committed to Engineering
In 1908 Alexander entered the College of Engineering at the State University of Iowa (subsequently the University of Iowa) to further his ambition to become an engineer. The only black in the university's engineering program, he was advised by various teachers that because of his race the field would be twice as tough for him. He could not hope to succeed and he should select another major, they said. Their efforts to dissuade Alexander became efforts to persuade him—in his view—and Alexander worked hard in part-time jobs and in his courses to reach his goal. A versatile young man, Alexander joined the university's football team, becoming its first black member. He also became a star tackle and won the nickname "Alexander the Great." He joined the black fraternity, Kappa Alpha Psi.
Alexander graduated in 1912 with a B.S. degree, the school's first black engineering graduate. He continued his studies, first in bridge design at the University of London (1921) and at the State University of Iowa, where he obtained a degree in civil engineering in 1925. In 1947 Howard University in Washington, D.C, awarded him an honorary doctorate in engineering. After receiving his first degree, Alexander found the business world unready to acknowledge his expertise. Perhaps his engineering professors' gloomy warnings were valid. Local engineering firms refused to hire him; consequently, to earn a living Alexander became a laborer for a steel shop at Marsh Engineering, earning twenty-five cents an hour. Two years later he was in charge of bridge construction in Iowa and Minnesota and earned seventy dollars a week. He resigned that year (1914) and founded his own company, A. A. Alexander Inc. Mindful of the need to expand his modest business beyond a few minority clientele and scarcely any other bidders, in 1917 he partnered with white contractor George F. Higbee, with whom he had worked at Marsh Engineering. The new company, Alexander & Higbee, Inc., specialized in projects with potential for serving the company well: bridge construction, road construction, and sewer systems.
- Born in Ottuma, Iowa on May 14
- Receives B.S. degree, State University of Iowa
- Establishes A. A. Alexander Inc. engineering firm
- Forms Alexander & Higbee, Inc.
- Receives degree in civil engineering, State University of Iowa
- Receives Harmon Award
- Constructs heating station at University of Iowa
- Forms Alexander & Repass Company; receives contract for sewage treatment plant
- Receives NAACP's Spingarn Medal
- Designs and builds Union Pacific Railroad Bridge
- Builds Tuskegee Airmen's training site; designs and builds Tidal Basic Bridge and Sewall, Washington, D.C.
- Becomes governor of the Virgin Islands
- Designs Frederick Douglass Memorial Estate Apartments
- Dies in Des Moines on January 4
An injury from a construction accident took Higbee's life in 1925; thus, from 1925 to 1929, Alexander ran his company alone. He received his largest contract to date in 1927, when he was asked to build a $1.2 million central heating and generating station for his alma mater, the University of Iowa, a system apparently still in use as of the early 2000s. During this period, Alexander built mostly projects in which he specialized, bridges and viaducts, but some apartment buildings and sewage systems as well. On occasions he faced racial prejudice and hostility, yet the record of his work for that period gives only a positive report on his ability to achieve despite such potential obstacles. Alexander took on a second white (junior) partner in 1929, Maurice A. Repass, who had been his football teammate in college and was an engineering graduate as well. They were a good mix and their fortune grew considerably. Alexander & Repass affiliated with Glen C. Herrick, prominent local white contractor and road builder, who had been contracted to build a canal system in Nebraska. For bridge work connected with his project, Herrick hired Alexander & Repass and later on financed a number of projects for the new company. Their largest project was in 1935, when Alexander & Repass designed and began to build the Union Pacific Railroad Bridge across the North Platte River in Nebraska.
Constructs Famous Airfield
Alexander & Repass was now positioned to bid on projects across the country. As the federal government expanded the areas of its contracts due to World War II, the company was successful in its bid to construct an airfield at the U.S. Army base located in Chewhaw, Alabama. This airbase achieved widespread acclaim, particularly in later years, as the training site for the 99th Pursuit Squadron Air Base and Pilot Training School of the famous Tuskegee Airmen, the highly decorated, all-black flying squad in the then-segregated U.S. Amy Air Corps.
So lucrative was their business by that time that Alexander & Repass opened a second office in Washington, D.C. The second office was necessary for the company had received additional contracts from the federal government for publicly visible projects in the D.C. area. Among these projects were the granite and limestone Tidal Basin Bridge and Seawall, built at a cost of $1 million and employing 160 workers. The firm also built the K Street elevated highway and underpass that runs from Key Bridge to 27th Street, N.W. Along the Potomac River it built the $3.5 million Whitehurst Freeway, diverting traffic around Georgetown. Another project was the overpass that took Riggs Road under the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad tracks. Other projects included the Frederick Douglass Memorial Estate Apartments in the Anacostia section of Washington, D.C, that Alexander designed and his company built in 1955. Alexander's role as designer of other projects is undocumented.
A lifelong Republican, Alexander was politically active. He was assistant chairman of the Iowa Republican State Committee in 1932 and again in 1940. He supported Dwight D. Eisenhower and his bid for the presidency. For his work with the Republican Party, Alexander was appointed governor of the Virgin Islands in April 1954. He was far less successful as governor than he was as an engineer, and his blatant contempt for the residents often alienated the easy-going islanders and the legislature to the extent that they were unsupportive. His personality was offensive, and he was accused of cronyism and one who sought only to promote his growing business interests in the Caribbean and South America. His declining health and questionable performance led to his resignation in August 1955, sixteen months after his appointment.
His stature in Des Moines and in Washington, D.C. was enhanced, however, by his work in civil and race relations activities. Alexander was president of the Des Moines NAACP in 1944. He also was president of the local Interracial Commission from 1940 to 1941. He was a trustee at Tuskegee Institute (subsequently Tuskegee University) and at Howard University. In 1934 he was a member of the investigative team that, at the request of the Haitian president, looked into the economic development possibilities for Haiti. Alexander chaired the Polk County (Iowa) draft board and presided over the local Negro Community Center. His organizational activities included national polemarch (president) of his fraternity, Kappa Alpha Psi, and board member of the Colored YMCA. Among his recognitions were the Harmon Award (1926) for outstanding achievement in black business and the Spingarn Medal from the NAACP (1934) for becoming the second most successful black American entrepreneur.
Alexander has been described as aggressive, blunt, outspoken, dogmatic, paternalistic, and a hard and difficult taskmaster. He was an attractive man with blue-grey eyes and an imposing, commanding personality. When traveling in connection with his work, Alexander often stayed in white hotels throughout the country, his race not an identifiable factor.
There are claims that Alexander's unsuccessful performance in the Virgin Islands led to his death from a heart attack at home in Des Moines on January 4, 1958. His wife, Audra A. Lindzy, whom he married in 1913, survived him. Archie Alphonso Jr., their only child, had died in his early years. The University of Iowa, Tuskegee Institute, and Howard University were among beneficiaries of his will, but upon the death of his wife. The schools each received $105,000 in 1975, to support engineering scholarships.
Archie Alphonso Alexander had been a successful engineer who defied the predictions of his college teachers that he could not survive in the field in which he pioneered. Although he was unsuccessful as governor of the Virgin Islands, he was prominent in local Republican politics and in civil rights and interracial activities.
Bullock, Ralph W. In Spite of Handicaps. New York: Association Press, 1927.
Lufkin, Jack. "Archibald Alphonse Alexander (1888–1958)." In African American Architects: A Biographical Dictionary 1865–1945, edited by Dreck Spurlock Wilson. New York: Routledge, 2004.
Nichols, J. L., and William H. Crogman. Progress of a Race. Naperville, Ill.: J. L. Nichols & Co., 1925, 329-30.
Robinson, Wilhelmina S. Historical Negro Biographies. New York: Publishers Company, under the Auspices of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, 1967, 154-55.
Wynes, Charles E. "Archie Alphonso Alexander." In American National Biography, edited by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
"Bridge-Building Team." Ebony 4 (September 1949): 59-60.