African American Transportation History: Archie Alexander, Engineer

During his long engineering career, Archibald Alphonso “Archie” Alexander achieved widespread acclaim for the bridges and other transportation infrastructure that he helped create across the United States. Alexander was born on May 14, 1888, in Ottumwa, Iowa. He was the oldest of the nine children of Price and Mary Alexander, and they were all part of a small black community in that Hawkeye State city.

Alexander and his family eventually moved to a farm outside Iowa’s capital city of Des Moines. After graduating from Oak Park High School in Des Moines in 1905, he attended both Highland Park College and Cummins Art College in that city before enrolling instead at the State University of Iowa (officially known as the University of Iowa since 1964) to pursue his interest in engineering.

Even though his professors cautioned him that career opportunities for black engineers were few and far between, Alexander persisted in his studies. In 1912, he became the first black person to graduate from that university’s engineering program.

Alexander’s jobs during his years as a university student included working as a draftsman for Marsh Engineering Company. This company, which was based in Des Moines, specialized in the design and construction of bridges. After graduating from the State University of Iowa, Alexander worked at Marsh Engineering Company as a foreman.

In 1914, though, Alexander launched his own engineering company and named it A.A. Alexander, Inc. As head of this firm, Alexander was focused in large part on the creation of bridges; however, he also carried out a wide range of other engineering projects. In 1929, he took on his former university classmate Maurice A. Repass as a junior partner. The company was then renamed Alexander & Repass.

The transportation-oriented efforts undertaken by this company included numerous bridge and highway construction projects across the United States. A couple of the better-known examples of these projects involve work on the Whitehurst Freeway, the elevated section of U.S. Route 29 in Washington, D.C.; and an extension to the Baltimore-Washington Parkway (Maryland Route 295), which runs southwest from Baltimore to the nation’s capital.

In addition, Alexander used a racially integrated construction crew to build both a bridge and seawall at the Tidal Basin near the National Mall. Alexander & Repass also constructed Moton Airfield (present-day Moton Field Municipal Airport) in the city of Tuskegee, Alabama. During World War II, this airfield was extensively used for flight training for the black military pilots famously known as the Tuskegee Airmen.

The major achievements and overall success of Alexander’s company led Ebony magazine to hail it as “the nation’s most famous interracial business” in 1949. Alexander also received several other forms of high-profile recognition for his professional accomplishments over the years. He was honored with the William E. Harmon Foundation Award for Distinguished Achievement Among Negroes (better known as the Harmon Award) in 1926. Alexander was also presented that same year with the Laurel Wreath Award, an award given by the historically African American fraternity Kappa Alpha Psi for noteworthy accomplishments.

Along with receiving those awards, Alexander was presented with various types of academic recognition for his life’s work. In 1925, he was granted an honorary master’s degree in engineering by the State University of Iowa — 13 years after he had received his undergraduate degree from that educational institution. Alexander received an honorary doctorate in engineering from Howard University in 1946.

Yet another notable tribute to Alexander was a collection of drawings created by renowned illustrator Charles Henry Alston in 1943 for the U.S. Office of War Information. This artwork featured the title “Archie Alexander, Builder of Bridges,” and it also included several laudatory words about its subject. “Alexander is no newcomer to the field of engineering,” stated Alston. “His firm has built everything from sewage disposal plants to power plants and airports! – as well as half of the bridges in the city of Des Moines, Iowa!!”

Alexander, who also served briefly as governor of the Virgin Islands of the United States, died on January 4, 1958, in Des Moines. He was 69. Those attending his funeral service at St. Paul Episcopal Church in Des Moines included a total of 50 honorary pallbearers.

Another reflection of the high regard in which Alexander was held could be seen in words prepared by Claude A. Barnett of the Associated Negro Press and published later that same month. “As long as bridges are being built, the name of Archie Alexander will be remembered,” noted Barnett (writing under the pen name of Albert Anderson). “Having known Arch all of my life, it will seem strange knowing his useful life has ended.”

Photo Credit: Public Domain

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