A Slave’s Legacy: Our Nation’s Tallest Building

by Leslie Lytle, Messenger Staff Writer

“Legacy is all those who came before you,” said Audra Reyes, School of Theology seminarian and master of ceremonies welcoming the audience to the Feb. 25 Mount Sinai Baptist Church Black history program fittingly held at Winchester’s historically Black Townsend School.

Gloria McKissack, featured speaker, recounted the legacy of five generations of McKissacks beginning with the enslaved Moses who survived the middle passage from Africa and whose heirs went on to found the first Black architectural firm in the country, a firm today engaged in designing the nation’s tallest building.

Celebrating the evening’s theme, “Legacy: What Does It Mean to You?”, entertainment included “negro” spirituals and a gospel quartet, a display of native dresses recalling the legacy of the African continent and Caribbean, and a Black History Contest conducted by Sandra Brown. “What Franklin County Street is named after an African American family?” Brown asked for the final question. The answer: Sewanee’s Kennerly Avenue, honoring Black educators John and Gertrude Kennerly, the family Brown hailed from.

The evening’s speaker Gloria McKissack earned an undergraduate degree from Tennessee A & I and went on to graduate studies at the University of Northern Colorado. In 2021, President Joe Biden awarded her the Lifetime Achievement Award for her work as an activist and educator. But McKissack insists her “greatest passion” is passing on the legacy of the McKissack family. Gloria McKissack married into the fourth generation of McKissacks, her husband Joel an architect as were his siblings and many in the three generations of McKissacks who preceded him.

Moses McKissack, born into the West African Ashanti tribe, learned the trade of master builder from his owner. Moses married a Cherokee woman. Their ninth child Gabriel Moses McKissack, born a free man by his mother’s legacy as a free woman, followed his father’s trade. Moses McKissack III, Gabriel’s son, initially worked with his father, but apprenticed with an architect and soon honed his skills as a designer. Initially designing and building homes and churches, often assisted by his brother Calvin, Moses received his first major commission in 1908 for the construction of Fisk University’s Carnegie Library. In 1922, the brothers’ firm McKissack and McKissack became one of the first licensed architectural firms in Tennessee and the first licensed African American architectural firm in the country. Following the death of the brothers, leadership of the firm passed to Moses III’s son, William DeBerry McKissack. When William suffered a stroke, his wife Leatrice Buchanan McKissack stepped into the role of president and with her twin daughters, Cheryl and Deryl, brought the firm to national prominence as a 21st century women-powered business. With the sisters at the helm, the firm lead the design and construction of the National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall and of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. The firm’s vast portfolio of projects also includes JFK International Airport’s Terminal One and the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. A current project, the Affirmation Tower in Manhattan, will be the tallest skyscraper in the Western Hemisphere.

“People want to take our history from us. Don’t let them do that,” Gloria McKissack said in closing. “Look to the past so you can understand who you are and move forward in a positive way.”

Brown chimed in with her own advice, advice amply illustrated that evening, “Try to leave the world a little better than you found it.”

2023 March
2023 February
2023 January
2022 December
2022 November
2022 October
2022 September
2022 August
2022 July
2022 June
2022 May
2022 April
2022 March
2022 February
2022 January
2021 December
2021 November
2021 October
2021 September
2021 August
2021 July
2021 June
2021 May
2021 April
2021 March
2021 February
2021 January
2020 December
2020 November
2020 October
2020 September
2020 August
2020 July
2020 June
2020 May
2020 April
2020 March
2020 February
2020 January
2019 December
2019 November
2019 October
2019 September
2019 August
2019 July
2019 June
2019 May
2019 April
2019 March
2019 February
2019 January
2018 December
2018 November
2018 October
2018 September
2018 August
2018 July
2018 June
2018 May
2018 April
2018 March
2018 February
2018 January
2017 December
2017 November
2017 October
2017 September
2017 August
2017 July
2017 June
2017 May
2017 April
2017 March
2017 February
2017 January
2016 December
2016 November
2016 October
2016 September
2016 August
2016 July
2016 June
2016 May
2016 April
2016 March
2016 February
2016 January
2015 December
2015 November
2015 October
2015 September
2015 August
2015 July
2015 June
2015 May
2015 April
2015 March
2015 February
2015 January
2014 December
2014 November
2014 October
2014 September
2014 August
2014 July
2014 June
2014 May
2014 April
2014 March
2014 February
2014 January
2013 December
2013 November
2013 October
2013 September
2013 August
2013 July
2013 June
2013 May
2013 April
2013 March
2013 February
2013 January
2012 December
2012 November
2012 October
2012 September
2012 August
2012 July
2012 June
2012 May
2012 April
2012 March
2012 February
2012 January
2011 December
2011 November
2011 October
2011 September
2011 August
2011 July
2011 June
2011 May
2011 April
2011 March
2011 February
2011 January
2010 December
2010 November
2010 October
2010 September
2010 August
2010 July
2010 June
2010 May