Alexander, Archie Alphonso 1888–1958
Archie Alphonso Alexander 1888–1958
Engineer and politician
When he was young, Archie A. Alexander was discouraged from enrolling in engineering school, being told that it was almost impossible for a black man to succeed at it. Alexander not only enrolled in engineering school, but went on to be successful in operating his own firm, and was responsible for an impressive list of major engineering projects. Many bridges, freeways, tunnels, power plants, and viaducts that are used today were designed and built by Alexander from the 1920s to the 1950s. Yet, his name is not widely known in contemporary society. In his book, In Spite of Handicaps, Ralph W. Bullock suggested that possible reasons for this was that Alexander “[was] overly modest and [shunned] publicity and notoriety whenever possible.” Bullock felt that because Alexander’s business was mostly conducted with white business people that “his contacts with colored men who would seek to give publicity to his work [were] limited.” Alexander was active in civic, community, and governmental affairs, and became governor of the Virgin Islands in 1954.
Born to Price and Mary Alexander at Ottumwa, Iowa on May 14, 1888, Alexander was the oldest son in a large family. He began public school in Ottumwa, but his father, a janitor, later moved the family to a small farm outside Des Moines, and Alexander continued his schooling there; he graduated from high school in 1905.
Alexander did not attend college immediately after high school, instead continuing to work as he had during school. He attended Highland Park College. He was in his early twenties when he entered the College of Engineering at the State University of Iowa in 1909. Throughout his college years Alexander worked, participated in football, and maintained his studies. As with many students involved in sports who were also working their way through college, Alexander occasionally had trouble maintaining his grades, and therefore, his eligibility to play on the team. Raymond A. Smith, Jr. said in The Palimpsest, “If one can believe newspaper reports that chalk drills sometimes lasted until 9:00 P.M., is little wonder that athletes working their way through school had difficulty keeping up in their class work.” Alexander was ineligible to play at the beginning of the 1920 school year, but quickly made up his academic work.
At 6’2” tall and 177 pounds, Alexander was larger than the average student. He excelled in the tackle position on the college football team. During that time period protective gear for the players consisted of canvas pants, jerseys or jackets, shinguards, and shoulder pads. The helmets were lightweight, and kneepads and football shoes were not always worn. While rules had been instituted to eliminate excessive roughness, there were still many injuries to players, including Alexander. In October of 1909 he suffered a cracked rib, and in the
At a Glance…
Born May 14, 1888, in Ottumwa, Iowa; son of Price, a janitor and Mary; wife’s name Audra; children: Archie Alphonso Alexander, Jr. Education : University of Iowa, B.S., 1912. Politics : Republican. Religion : Episcopalian.
Marsh Engineering Company, Des Moines, IA, design engineer, 1912-1914; Alexander and Higbee, Des Moines, engineering and contracting 1914-1925; Crocker Street Branch of the YMCA, Des Moines, charter member and member of the board, 1919-1958; A. A. Alexander, Inc., Des Moines, 1925-1929; Grand Polemarch of Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity, 1927-1930; Supreme Liberty Life Insurance Company, Chicago, director, 1927-1958; Alexander and Repass, Des Moines and Washington, D. C., engineering and contracting, 1929-1958; Republican State Committee in Iowa, assistant to the chairman, 1932, 1940; Des Moines Interracial Commission, president, 1940-1941; Tuskegee Institute, Alabama, trustee, 1941-1958; Des Moines Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), charter member and president, 1944; Negro Community Center Board, Des Moines, president, 1945-1947; American Caribbean Contracting Co., Des Moines, president, 1950-1958; Howard University, trustee, 1951-1958; Cedar Hill Construction Corp., Washington, D. C., president, 1952-1958; Douglas Glen Gardens Corp., Washington, D. C., secretary-treasurer, 1952-1958; governor of the Virgin Islands, 1954-1955.
Awards: Honorary M. S. degree, State University of Iowa, 1925; the “Laurel Wreath” from his fraternity, Kappa Alpha Psi, for the member having accomplished the most outstanding thing during the year, 1925; bronze medal from Harmon Foundation, Inc. for outstanding Negro businessman, 1926; the Spingarn Medal by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for the “highest achievement of an American Negro,” in 1928; honorary D. C. E. degree, Howard University, 1946; certificate of merit from the State University of Iowa for being one of the 100 most-outstanding graduates, 1947.
1911 season he suffered with a “bad knee.” While Alexander continued to play with injuries despite skills that earned him the nickname, “Alexander the Great,” he was forced to miss several games because of his color. He was the only black man on the team; missing only three games during his football career because opposing teams requested he sit out because they would not play against a black man.
In 1912 Alexander graduated from the State University of 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, Marsh Engineering Company of Des Moines. After two years with Marsh, 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. A friend and colleague from Marsh Engineering, George Higbee, joined Alexander in the business, which was renamed Alexander and Higbee.
According to Charles E. Wynes in The Palimpsest, “Alexander worked to ’keep up with his field.’” He went to the University of London in 1921 to study bridge design, leaving Higbee in charge of the business. However, in 1925 Higbee died when he was struck by a steel bridge beam while supervising construction. Alexander changed the firm’s name back to A. A. Alexander, Inc. and continued in business by himself for the next four years. His firm secured large contracts with the State University of Iowa, and these included a new heating plant in 1926. Two years later Alexander built a power plant for the University, and also in 1928 the firm built a tunnel system under the Iowa River which would pipe steam, water, and electricity to the west side of the campus.
After four years on his own, Alexander took on as a junior partner a former university classmate and football team member, Maurice A. Repass. His new partner had been teaching mechanics and hydraulics at the State University of Iowa at the time he joined Alexander. The firm’s name changed again, this time to Alexander and Repass, which it remained until Alexander’s death in 1958. As was Alexander’s former partner, George Higbee, Maurice Repass was also white. According to Charles E. Wynes in The Palimpsest, the thriving firm was called the “nation’s most successful interracial business” by Ebony magazine in 1949. The partners worked well together and the business was efficient with Repass handling contracts and daily business details while Alexander was the company’s representative, seeking out new business and contracts. Race did not seem to be an issue in obtaining new business, and according to Wynes, Alexander said that he found his race but “little handicap.” Indeed, the firm continued to thrive over the years and Alexander’s longest-employed people were white, including his secretary.
After having enjoyed the success of several million-dollar projects, including a 52-acre sewage treatment plant in Grand Rapids, Michigan and a powerhouse in Columbus, Nebraska, Alexander and Repass ran into trouble in 1935 when a labor dispute in Chicago cost them a substantial amount of money. With only ․4,000 left in assets, they set about rebuilding the company.
The second world war gave Alexander’s firm business in the form of an airfield in Tuskegee, Alabama, where black pilots trained. They also worked on the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad’s Golden State Limited Route and built bridges in Iowa and Missouri for the railroad as well.
The firm later opened 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 Alexander and Repass, but perhaps the largest project was the ․3,350,000 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.” Charles E. Wynes said in The Palimpsest that Alexander “neatly skirted the issue by implementing the use of paper drinking cups and by labeling the two restrooms ’skilled’ and ’unskilled.’ Thus, Alexander did not have to desert his principles.”
Although he may have revolved in a white world, Ralph Bullock said in his book, In Spite of Handicaps, that Alexander was “an ardent supporter of all worthwhile movements for the betterment of his own race.” Alexander was a charter member of the Des Moines Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and served as its president in 1944. He was also president of the Des Moines Interracial Commission from 1940 to 1941. He served on many committees and boards in support of the black community. In 1954 his firm completed a ․1 million apartment building in Maryland for the National Association for Colored Women.
By 1950 Alexander and Repass had completed engineering and construction projects in the majority of the nation’s states; completed projects since Alexander had begun his firm in 1914 numbered over 300. In that same year he founded the American Caribbean Contracting Co., Des Moines, and served as president for the next eight years. This company did construction work in Venezuela and Puerto Rico; it also sought sewage disposal plant contracts in the Virgin Islands but was unsuccessful in obtaining them.
Alexander had been a Republican all his life, and he had 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. Eisenhower later nominated Alexander for the post of governor of the Virgin Islands, a group of approximately fifty small islands or cays in the Caribbean Sea. He was endorsed by both Democratic and Republican senators from Iowa. Confirmed by the U. S. Senate in early 1954, he began his governorship in April of that year. The Virgin Islands was not unknown to Alexander, as he and his wife had taken several vacations there. But Charles E. Wynes said in The Palimpsest, “the appointment was a disaster for all concerned.” Instead of possessing a warm, outgoing personality, Wynes said Alexander “appeared to be doctrinaire, cold personally, and distrusted for reasons that were not always clear.”
The population of the Virgin Islands consisted mostly of blacks, whose cultural heritage was slavery. There was also a small percentage of Dutch, Danish, English, and French origin. The islands had gone through several changes of government, including the 1936 Organic Act which allowed some self-government for the first time in their history. However, since 1931, the office of governor had always been appointed by the United States president. Only one governor, Morris F. de Castro, had been a native of the islands. There had been a number of years of unrest in the islands until 1954 when a revised Organic Act went into effect. Alexander took office two months before this act was instituted.
As governor, Charles E. Wynes said, “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. Wynes said in The Palimpsest, “unfortunately, he believed he would run a country the same way.” Alexander was criticized for being “too firm” with the islanders, and in The Virgin Islands. A Caribbean Lilliput, author Gordon K. Lewis said he was “a midwestern Babbitt who brought all the values of smalltown America to the Caribbean.” (Babbitt was a character in Sinclair Lewis’ novel Babbitt, published in 1922; the term is used disparagingly and refers to narrow-mindedness and self-satisfied). Gordon K. Lewis also described Alexander as having “an openly contemptuous attitude toward the local people, a brash manner more befitting a gang foreman than a diplomat, and a complete inability to comprehend the subtleties of West Indian social intercourse.” Alexander’s unpopular remark that the way for the islanders to solve their problems was for them “to go to work and tighten their belts” did not endear him to the people.
Alexander’s tenure in the islands was cut short. The Eisenhower administration and the Republican party came to consider Alexander’s appointment an immense embarrassment. The governor clashed with members of the legislature many times, and he was criticized for appointing non-islanders to administrative positions. He was also accused of using his office for personal business and for that of his cronies. At the one-year anniversary of his governorship, his resignation was called for, but Alexander was, at least publicly, unconcerned about the situation. He referred to those wanting to remove him from office as a small group who “don’t want discipline, and that’s what I’ve been giving them.” But yet on April 12, 1955 Alexander, who had been back in Des Moines, returned to the Virgin Islands and was admitted to Knud Hansen Memorial Hospital in Charlotte Amalie for a checkup. By then there was pressure to resign from both his opponents and the Eisenhower administration. In August, Alexander submitted his resignation, stating “a recent heart attack” and “urgent admonitions of my medical advisers” to quit his post. The administration was prepared for this turn of events; Walter A. Gordon of Berkeley, California was appointed to succeed Alexander.
By this time Alexander was sixty-seven and not in good health. He returned to Des Moines, and on January 4, 1958 he died of a heart attack at the age of seventy. Alexander’s accomplishments far outweighed his unsuccessful sixteen-month governorship of the Virgin Islands. He left a trust fund for his wife, and upon her death in 1973 the remaining ․315,000 was divided equally for engineering scholarships at the University of Iowa, Tuskegee Institute, and Howard University.
Brawley, Benjamin, Negro Builders and Heroes, The University of North Carolina Press, 1937.
Bullock, Ralph W., In Spite of Handicaps, Books for Libraries Press, 1927, P. 79.
Lewis, Gordon K., The Virgin Islands. A Caribbean Lilliput, Northwestern University Press, 1972, pp. 108–109.
The Palimpsest, May/June 1985, pp. 81, 83, 85, 86, 97.
Time, April 19, 1954.
—Sandy J. Stiefer
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