NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – Nashvillians are no strangers to the name ‘McKissack’ with a park and school among the sites honoring the family behind it.
“Nashville’s very significant in our history,” said Deryl McKissack. “My family has always been honored to be a part of the fabric of Tennessee.”
It’s a fabric they started to weave generations ago with her great-great-grandfather Moses McKissack. He was brought to North Carolina in 1790, as a slave and became a brickmaker when he was sold to a prominent contractor.
“That’s where his name came from. He passed the trade of construction down to my great grandfather, who became a master carpenter and became famous in Tennessee for the spiral staircases and arch windows,” said Deryl. “Then he passed the trade down to my grandfather and his brother. They went to corresponding school at MIT to become architects.”
The first licensed Black architects in the Southeast, Moses, III and his brother Calvin launched the first McKissack architecture and engineering firm in Nashville in 1905.
“Even in many years, many decades later, what I experienced, I’m sure they experienced it times 100. And it’s very humiliating, it’s degrading, you know, you’re used to getting a bad verdict underestimated, passed over. And you know, in those days, you could get killed,” said Deryl.
Amid the risks, the McKissacks persevered with Carnegie Library at Fisk University as their first major commission.
“They’ve design and build a lot of historical buildings on universities, Black universities, throughout the Southeast. At at one point we had 110. I know that’s decreased, but we’ve been on at least 30 to 35 campuses. Fisk and Tennessee State being one of the main ones where my grandfather and his brother built many of their facilities,” she said. “The McKissacks have sat on the Fisk University board for three generations, and my parents met on the Fisk campus.”
The company’s mark on Nashville is still evident today with several buildings at Tennessee State University, the Morris Memorial Building at Fourth and Charlotte Downtown, and the historic Hubbard House on First Avenue South.
Deryl McKissack started her firm in 1990, called McKissack and McKissack as an outgrowth of the McKissack firm founded in Nashville. Her sister Cheryl McKissack Daniel is President and CEO of a separate firm with the same name touted as a family business that’s been in operation for 117 years.
“I do remember, my father telling me all the time that we just don’t let others define who we are, and as long as I kept that in my mind, that regardless of how all these people look at me, or think of me, their bad perception of me, that is not me, I define who I am,” said Deryl.
The McKissack name has only continued building on its legacy, and as part of that Deryl changed her company’s mission.
“It has to go beyond bricks and mortar, and into something that’s much more spiritual, but more of delivering mankind,” she said. “We changed our our mission to, ‘Enhancing people’s lives through the design and construction industry.’ And if you look at the projects that we’ve worked on, that’s exactly what they do. Whether it’s educating you through our monuments and our memorials; whether it’s transporting you through the roads, and bridges, and airports that we work on; whether it’s educating your children in the schools, K through 12, which is my passion.”
Their portfolio includes a design-build contract to rehab the historic Lincoln and Jefferson memorials, project management for the MLK Memorial on the National Mall, project management company for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and many other schools, commercial, and residential projects.
“It gives all people inspiration, knowing that, that yes, as Black people, we have been accomplished, we have been successful, we have been the first to do things, we have been inventors, we have been scholars, we are scholars, artists, you know, we’re not just athletes. We’re everything. We’re people, and we’re smart, and we’re passionate,” said Deryl. “And that’s what I think the McKissack story does for the rest of us. And that makes me feel good, personally. And it gives me strength and confidence when I walk in a room. Yeah, I don’t have to try to prove who I am. I can just be because that’s who I am. I’ve got all of this behind me. I’m standing on the shoulders of some great people.”
Her company now has offices in Washington, D.C, Baltimore, Miami, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, and Dallas.