Iowa History
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Iowa History

Archie Alexander Built Equality Across the Nation

If you ever look out from the Washington Monument and see the seawall and bridge near the tidal basin in the District of Columbia, consider that Iowan helped design it. One of Iowa’s preeminent engineers of the 20th century was an African American man named Archie Alexander, who left a notable and national legacy even in the face of systemic racism.

Alexander was born in Ottumwa in 1888. His parents moved in 1899 to Saylor Township in Polk County, where his father farmed, and then moved to Des Moines, where Archie attended local schools.

Des Moines had integrated its public schools many years earlier, but in 1908 Archie faced racism and the disruption of his academic training at the now-closed Highland Park College. Before he returned for his sophomore year to study engineering, he learned that the college had banned Black students. The college president, Oliver Longwell, explained that the school was losing many of its white students from the South, who objected to integrated classes. So college leaders decided to bar Blacks rather than recruit more to fill the gap. So Alexander transferred to the University of Iowa.

At the time, Alexander probably knew that Frank Holbrook had broken the color line in football at the University of Iowa in 1895. Alexander himself became the Hawkeyes’ second Black player and was a capable lineman.

But the Hawkeyes’ opponents were not without prejudice. The Des Moines Register reported in 1911 that Purdue University was threatening to boycott its upcoming match if Alexander played. But the threat fizzled, Alexander played tackle, and the Hawkeyes defeated the Boilermakers 11–0 in West Lafayette.

Alexander faced skepticism back in Iowa City, too, where the university’s dean of engineering is reported to have said he had “never heard of Negro engineer.”

Nevertheless, Alexander graduated in 1912, married Audra Linzy in 1913 and furthered his studies in London. He founded an engineering company with George F. Higbee (who died in an accident that left Alexander to work solo on the Iowa City Power Generating Station, in 1927) and later partnered with former Hawkeye teammate Maurice Repass.

The firm of Alexander & Repass struggled in the early years of the Great Depression but eventually picked up more work, partly through their association with the Des Moines contractor Glen Herrick. Alexander, who usually placed the bids, told Ebony magazine in 1949 that some people tried to prevent him from bidding on contracts, but over time the company proved it could complete a job on time and with a lean budget. As he put it, “money talked.”

The company’s portfolio included many churches around Washington, D.C., as well as the airstrip in Tuskegee, Alabama, where the famous Tuskegee Airmen trained for World War II.

In spite of Alexander’s national reputation, both he and Audra faced indiginities in Des Moines. In 1944 the couple tried to buy a home in Chautauqua Park, near 16th Street and Hickman Road, but the area had restrictive covenants that sought to keep Blacks from moving in. Neighbors filed a suit to stop the Alexanders’ purchase, but the prominent Black lawyer James B. Morris prevailed on the couple’s behalf.

Alexander also served for a brief stint as the territorial governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands in 1954 and 1955. He died in early 1958 and is buried with Audra and their son in a historically-segregated Black section of Glendale Cemetery in Des Moines. Even now, his achievements are a testament to persistence and expertise.

— Leo Landis, State Curator, State Historical Society of Iowa. This essay is one of a series during Iowa History Month, in March, and the commemoration of Iowa’s 175th Anniversary, throughout 2021.



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