Archie A. Alexander: The First Black Graduate Of Iowa University, Built Bridges And Highways That Are Still In Use Today



His ability to work interracially with whites to bid on contracts was the key to his success as one of the influential African-American engineers. This strategy became necessary because, in the 1900s, racial discrimination against blacks made it difficult for him to break even on his own in the job market.

No architectural firm will hire him after he graduates as Iowa University’s only black engineer. According to, Archie Alphonso Alexander overcame racial barriers to become a colossus in the construction of bridges, highways, municipal power and sewage plants.

His first encounter with racism as a black student at the State University of Iowa (later the University of Iowa) in the 1990s was with the dean of engineering. He told him that he had never met an African American who wanted to study engineering and that he should pursue another path. This, however, inspired Alexander to pursue his dream.

His interest in engineering was evident as a child, when he was seen building dams with his siblings. When he was 11, his family relocated to a small farm on the outskirts of Des Moines. His father was hired as the head of custodian at the Des Moines National Bank, which was a respectable position for a black man at the time.

Alexander entered Oak Park Grammar School in 1905 and graduated from Oak Park High School in 1910. The expectation among the locals at the time was that a person would complete his education at that level. Alexander, on the other hand, surprised everyone by his strong desire to attend college. In Des Moines, he applied to Highland Park College and then the Cummins Art School.

In order to realize his dream, he was admitted to the College of Engineering at the State University of Iowa in 1908. Many professors advised him to give up, but as the only black engineering student, he was determined to make history.

Attempts to discourage him served as motivation for him to excel academically. He went above and beyond by working part-time and taking additional courses in order to graduate.

But, at some point, he was tempted to believe his professors were correct. No local engineering firm was interested in hiring him. He was forced to look for work as a laborer in a steel shop at Marsh Engineering, where he was paid 25 cents per hour.

He advanced his career when he was hired by a bridge construction company in Iowa and Minnesota. He made $70 per week here. In 1914, he resigned from his position and founded his own company, A.A. Alexander Inc. He began with clients from minority groups who offered him small contracts.

He did not form an interracial partnership with George F. Higbee, with whom he had previously worked at Marsh Engineering, until 1917. In 1927, they were awarded a $1.2 million contract to build a central heating and generating station for the University of Iowa, which was still operational in the 2000s. To become a well-known black architect, he won numerous contracts to construct specialized bridges, highways, and towering infrastructure.

Alexander was born in Ottuma, Iowa, on May 14, 1888. He was one of Price Alexander and Mary Hamilton Alexander’s eight children. He lived in a predominantly white company with only 500 black employees.


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