Deryl McKissack
Heather Houston Deryl McKissack

The AEC industry has never been quite the meritocracy we may have thought. Racism thrives in a way that’s painfully apparent to those who live through it. If history—at least my personal history— is a guide, bringing more diversity, equity, and inclusion to the industry will be harder than it seems in this moment of national reckoning.

I’m part of a long history of Blacks in architecture and construction. The anonymity of the drafting table allowed my grandfather Moses McKissack III to start an architecture practice in 1905. His brother, my great-uncle Calvin Lunsford McKissack, joined him in the business in 1921. They designed houses, churches, and schools in Black and white Nashville neighborhoods, yet they struggled to secure contracts outside Tennessee and to build a Black-owned business during the Great Depression.

Even with a handsome portfolio of schools and commercial structures, the McKissack brothers and their credentials were questioned—and only grudgingly accepted—throughout the South. A turning point in their business came in 1942 when they won the 99th Pursuit Squadron air base in Tuskegee, Ala. At $5.7 million ($96 million in today’s dollars), it was the largest federal contract ever given to a Black-owned firm at the time.

My career has also had challenges. Working at my father’s drafting table while in high school, I could produce drawings by hand that passed muster with clients. Studying architecture and engineering at Howard University, a historically Black university surrounded by the Capitol’s grandeur, substantiated my belief that talent moved you up in the AEC industry. But entering the working world as a civil engineer shook my certainty; as a Black woman, I was relegated to the task at hand and received clear reminders to stay in my lane.

In my first field job, a supervisor did not give a second thought to the Confederate flag displayed on the wall behind his desk. He also complained to me freely about the Black construction workers’ lunch-break naps—the laborers worked by day to put themselves through school at night, yet he assumed they were lazy. But he was the boss and correcting him was not my place.

I vowed to do things differently in building my own practice. Everyone would have a role and a voice in the concepts they helped bring to life.

In my first field job, a supervisor did not give a second thought to the Confederate flag displayed on the wall behind his desk.

But inclusion in the broader business world proved another matter entirely. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, women account for fewer than 30% of architects and Blacks only about 7%. In engineering, 16% of civil engineers are women and 3.9% are Black. It’s tough to rise in these fields, especially given the importance of personal contacts. Early on, many men were not used to having a woman on the job, in the room, or giving orders. Business consolidations that have produced behemoth AEC firms have made it even more difficult for women- and Black-owned firms to grow and compete.

Awareness of bias will not guarantee that we can build back with equity once our COVID fever breaks. But the first step is having the humility to admit that sexism and racism are still among us—and that coming to grips with them will be a lifetime effort.

My firm owes its success not only to its ability to execute with precision and excellence but also to its efforts to give other women- and minority-owned business enterprises a seat at the table as partners and subcontractors. As AEC professionals, we must take steps in our practices not only in hiring, mentoring, and promotion, but also in procurement, charitable giving, and community action. When working in underserved areas, firms should find ways to hire local businesses and stakeholders.

These actions are easier said than done. But we understand process. We know how to put ideas and plans into practice to realize meaningful projects and effect substantial change. We can and should be able to apply these skills to our DEI efforts. If history is a guide, our work will be better for it. That alone merits optimism.

A abridged version of this article appears in the March 2021 issue of ARCHITECT. This article has been updated since first publication to clarify the history of McKissack & McKissack's founding.

The views and conclusions from this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine or of The American Institute of Architects.

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