As Mission Critical stops this week to think and celebrate #BlackHistoryMonth, we reflect on African Americans’ perspectives, cultures, and experiences that have shaped the American story. Most have not heard of American architect and civil engineer Alexander (Archie) Alphonso (May 14, 1888–January 4, 1958). Still, his achievements remind our team at Mission Critical that grit, hard work, and passion have always been key to success.
Alexander, the son of economically disadvantaged, working-class parents, broke through class and racial barriers attending the University of Iowa. During the summers, he worked as a draftsman for Marsh Engineers, a Des Moines bridge designing firm.
Alexander received his B.S from the University of Iowa in 1912. He was the University’s first black engineering graduate, and he would go on to earn his civil engineering degree in 1925 from the University.
Alexander’s style and tenacity resonate today. In 1914 Alexander started A. A. Alexander, Inc., when most people in our industry had never met a black college graduate, business owner, or engineer. Alexander was all three. Alexander worked to extend his project portfolio past his mainly minority client base and became partners with a white contractor, George F. Higbee, in 1917. Alexander and Higbee, Inc. specialized primarily in bridge construction, sewer systems, and road construction. While George’s presence may have opened opportunities, Alexander drove success for the firm. In referring to racial barriers, Alexander said, “Some of them act as though they want to bar me, but I walk in, throw my cards down, and I’m in. My money talks just as loudly as theirs.” Alexander later became the president of the American Caribbean Contracting Company in Des Moines (1950 – 1958) of the Cedar Hill Construction Corporation in Washington, D.C.
Alexander’s skill, creativity, and work ethic were the basis of a 40-year construction and an engineering career that included state and federal airfield, dam, bridge, structures, and waterworks projects across the United States. In his community, Alexander played prominent roles as the state chairman of the Republican Party, board positions on the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the Des Moines Interracial Commission.
Alexander’s legacy in overcoming barriers and succeeding in the face of incredible challenges reminds us that remembering the stories of those before us prepares us to build the future.