Leatrice McKissack
National Visionary

Born in Keytesville, Missouri on July 27, 1930

President of McKissack & McKissack, the oldest African American architectural firm in the US

Leatrice Buchanan McKissack, the chief executive officer of Nashville, Tennessee's McKissack & McKissack, Architects & Engineers, Inc., the oldest African American architectural firm in the United States, is characterized throughout the business community as a spirited and take-charge administrator.

Leatrice McKissack was born to Archie Buchanan and Catherine Brummell Buchanan in Keytesville, Missouri, on July 27, 1930. She was the second child and only girl of five children born to her parents. As McKissack grew up, her life was enriched by her exposure to renowned luminaries of the Harlem Renaissance. These included such notables as Charles S. Johnson, Langston Hughes, Aaron Douglas, Arna Bontemps; and John W. Work III.

In 1947, she graduated from Pearl High School and entered Fisk University, where she majored in mathematics and minored in chemistry. Two years after entering Fisk, in October of 1949, she married William DeBerry McKissack. William's father was a Nashville architect and founder of the McKissack and McKissack architectural firm. Marriage and domesticity did not hinder Leatrice from completing the necessary requirements for college graduation. William and Leatrice became the parents of three daughters: Andrea, born June 12, 1950, and twins Cheryl and Deryl, born May 15, 1961. In 1951, Leatrice McKissack graduated from Fisk University with a baccalaureate degree in mathematics.

While in Washington, D.C., to attend the 1983 graduation exercises of her daughters Cheryl and Deryl McKissack from Howard University, Leatrice McKissack learned of her husband's sudden stroke. Two days after William DeBerry McKissack became impaired, Leatrice McKissack assumed the leadership of her husband's company.

Fourteen years of retirement and the suddenness with which she was propelled into the forefront of the seventy-eight-year-old company made jumping into the corporate environment difficult, the new CEO said. She was quoted in the December 7, 1990, issue of the Nashville Banner on her new leadership position: "When I took over ... all I knew about architecture was how to spell it.... The hardest part of coming into the business was the uncertainty of not knowing what the heck I was doing. I was thrust into a business where I knew none of the people and nothing about architecture. In addition to coping with her husband's illness and managing the architectural firm, McKissack also was the chief overseer of McKissack Contracting Company, the College Hill Realty Company, and Devonal, an apartment complex. She later sold all these family-owned businesses.

After being at the company's helm for a year, McKissack had mastered the ins and outs of the business world. McKissack and McKissack architects have designed plans for buildings and renovations on the campuses of Fisk University, Tennessee State University, and Meharry Medical College. The firm also has been awarded contracts outside of Nashville, including a fifty-million-dollar renovation project for dormitories on the campus of Howard University in Washington, D.C. The Tennessee State Building Commission awarded it the design contract for the National Civil Rights Museum located in Memphis, Tennessee, at the site of the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.

This interview has
been archived in the
NVLP Collection of
African American
Oral Histories at the
Library of Congress
American Folklife
On February 28, 1988, approximately one year after the McKissack firm was selected by the state of Tennessee to do design work for the National Civil Rights Museum, McKissack's husband died in Washington, D.C. It was shortly after his death that she asked her daughters, all professional engineers, to join the family's architectural firm. "I didn't have any fears about bringing my daughters into the firm. I just decided that this was family. It was a legacy," McKissack stated. Today, Cheryl McKissack Hosten operates the McKissack and McKissack branch office in New York and her twin sister, Deryl McKissack Cappell, runs the firm's Washington, D.C., office.

McKissack accrued a number of local, state, and national honors. She was accorded the Business Woman of the Year Award by the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development, Office of Minority Business Enterprises (1988 and 1990); Women Owned Business Award, Nashville (1990); NAACP award for more than fifty years in business (1990); Small Business of the Year Award by the United States Small Business Administration (1990); Minority Regional Entrepreneur (1990); National Female.



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