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On this date in 1888, Archie Alexander was born. He was a Black design and construction engineer.
He was born in Ottumwa, Iowa, to Price and Mary Alexander; his father was a janitor; his mother’s name was Mary. Alexander was born during the Jim Crow era, into a family that lived in an area that was set aside for poor people. This meant that he would not be expected to have an education. When he was 11 years old, his family moved to a small farm on the outskirts of Des Moines. In 1905, he graduated from Oak Park High School in Des Moines.
To study at Highland Park College in Des Moines, Alexander took on some poorly paid part-time jobs and his parents also helped out as much as they could. In addition, he attended Cummins Art College in Des Moines before entering the University of Iowa in 1908 to study engineering. He was the only Black student in the college and, his adviser at university had bluntly told him that “a Negro could not hope to succeed as an engineer.” After he graduated in 1912, he discovered that his race prevented him from being appointed to any of the engineering posts to which he made application.
Alexander decided that if he could not find an engineering post, then he would join a firm as a laborer and work his way up. He started with the Marsh Engineering Company and in two years was in charge of the Marsh Engineering Company's bridge building program in Iowa and Minnesota. After two years with Marsh, he left to form his own engineering company. Few would willingly give a major engineering contract to a firm run by an African American if there were other firms able to do the work. As a consequence, Alexander's company ended up with the jobs for which no other firm competed.
While at the Marsh Engineering Company, Alexander had become friendly with another engineer, George F Higbee. Alexander took Higbee on as a partner in 1917 and the partnership only ended in 1925 when Higbee was tragically killed in a construction accident. For four years, Alexander continued to run the company on his own, gaining a reputation as a talented construction engineer building fine bridges, viaducts, and tunnels. Alexander also took part in the political life of Iowa, serving as the assistant chairman of the Iowa Republican State Committee in 1932 and again in 1940.
In 1954, he was appointed as governor of the Virgin Islands. His period as governor lasted only 16 months before he was forced to resign.
Archie Alexander died on January 4, 1958, in Des Moines. In 1975, upon the death of Alexander's wife, the University of Iowa, Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, and Howard University each received a substantial sum for engineering scholarships from a trust fund set up by Alexander in his will.
African American History in Iowa 1838-2000
by Bill Silag, Susan-Koch Bridgford, Hal Chase
Published by the State Historical Society if Iowa