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Alexander, Archie Alphonso
(May 14, 1888–January 4, 1958)

–engineer, designer, builder, and community leader–built a number of structures still in use around the nation. "Engineering is a tough field at best and it may be twice as tough for a Negro," a professor at the State University of Iowa told Alexander in 1909. Moreover, the dean had "never heard of a Negro engineer."Yet 40 years later Carter Woodson, founder of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, recognized that Alexander had overcome those discouraging words to become "the most successful Negro businessman in America."That same year Ebony Magazine profiled Alexander as an accomplished and wealthy African American businessman. His commercial success as a design engineer is noteworthy for an unusual business structure: an interracial partnership.

    Only about 500 African Americans lived in Ottumwa, Iowa (pop. 14,000), at the time Archie Alexander was born there. Among them were his parents, Price and Mary Alexander. Price earned a living as coachman and janitor. One of young Archie's play activities with his eight brothers and sisters involved building dams in a creek behind his home. In 1899 the family moved to a small farm outside Des Moines. His father became head custodian at the Des Moines National Bank, a prestigious job for an African American. In Iowa's capital, Archie attended Oak Park Grammar School and Oak Park High School, and for one year he attended Highland Park College, which no longer exists.

    Alexander's engineering education began in earnest at the State University of Iowa, where he also played football, earning the nickname "Alexander the Great," and joined Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity. During the summers he worked as a draftsman for Marsh Engineers, a Des Moines bridge designing firm. In 1912 Alexander received his B.S.– the university's first black engineering graduate. He continued his education at the University of London, where he took some coursework in bridge design in 1921, and obtained his civil engineering degree in 1925 at the State University of Iowa. Howard University granted him an honorary doctorate in engineering in 1947.

    His first years in the business world seemed to bear out his professor's prediction. Every engineering firm in Des Moines turned down his employment application. Initially discouraged, he became a laborer in a steel shop at Marsh Engineering, earning 25 cents per hour. Within two years he was earning $70 per week supervising bridge construction in Iowa and Minnesota.

    In 1914 Alexander embarked on a career as a self-employed engineer, A. A. Alexander, Inc. Desiring to extend his construction projects beyond minority clients, he 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. Alexander lost his partner in 1925, when Higbee died from an injury suffered in a construction accident.

    Shortly after Higbee's death Alexander received his largest contract to date–the construction in 1927 of a $1.2 million central heating and generating station for the State University of Iowa. Perched along the Iowa River, it is still in use. The following year he finished two other projects for his alma mater in Iowa City: a power plant and a tunnel system under the Iowa River designed to pipe steam, water, and electricity from the power plant to the campus buildings on the west side of the river. A year after completing these projects, Alexander teamed with his second white partner, Maurice A. Repass, a former football teammate. They completed a number of successful projects, but as the Great Depression worsened, the firm struggled to stay in business despite a good reputation. Alexander and Repass's fortunes improved considerably after they affiliated with Glen C. Herrick, a prominent white contractor and road builder in Des Moines. Herrick, under contract to develop a canal system in Nebraska, hired Alexander and Repass for the accompanying bridge work. Herrick provided financing for a number of other Alexander and Repass projects, including some bridge building projects in Des Moines.

    A positive reputation, proven ability, and solid financial reSources: And capitalization enabled the firm to bid successfully on projects in other parts of the country. The expansion of federal contracts brought on by World War II helped the firm make a successful bid to build at the Tuskegee Army Air Force base field, where the Tuskegee Airmen trained. During the war, Alexander and Repass established a second office in Washington, D.C., and continued to receive federal and local government construction projects, such as the granite and limestone Tidal Basin Bridge and Seawall.

    Alexander had an aggressive style. His role in the partnership was to pursue the bids. "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," Alexander once asserted, "just as loudly as theirs."Alexander, with his football player frame, was a capable taskmaster and known for his directness and honesty. Repass served as the inside man, checking contracts and handling mechanical details.

    Alexander's financial success made him a prominent figure around Des Moines and the nation. He led a number of civic and racial improvement efforts, and was a trustee at both Tuskegee Institute and Howard University. In Iowa, Alexander served as state chairman of the Republican Party and held positions on the Negro Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) board, the Des Moines branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the Des Moines Interracial Commission.

    Alexander's prominence did not allow him to escape the clutches of racism. One of the worst examples occurred in 1944, when he purchased a large Des Moines home in a fashionable white neighborhood and had to fight a restrictive covenant. The morning after he moved into his new home, he and his wife, Audra, woke up to a cross burning on their front lawn.

    The culmination of his public service was his selection by President Dwight Eisenhower to serve as governor of the Virgin Islands in 1954. That turned out to be an unhappy experience. His blunt, outspoken style and aggressive agenda to develop the islands did little to endear him with the population. After 18 months he resigned, partially because of declining health. He also retired from active construction work and moved back to Des Moines, where he died of a heart attack in 1958.
Sources Archie Alexander's papers are in Special Collections, University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City. Secondary sources include Jack Lufkin, "Archibald Alphonse Alexander (1888–1958)," in African American Architects: A Biographical Dictionary 1865– 1945, ed. Dreck Spurlock Wilson (2004); and Charles E. Wynes, "'Alexander the Great,' Bridge Builder," Palimpsest 66 (1985), 78–86.
Contributor: Jack Lufkin