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.”