Skip to Main Content

Archibald Alexander: Home

Honor Wall Biography

Archibald A. AlexanderArchibald A. Alexander

BS 1912 Civil Engineering

While still a young man, Archie Alexander broke through two deeply entrenched barriers.  He was the second African-American football player at the University of Iowa and the first African-American to receive a civil engineering degree from the UI in 1912.  Alexander was born in Ottumwa, Iowa, the son of a janitor and coachman.  After enrolling at the University of Iowa, he played tackle from 1909 to 1911.  Upon graduation, Alexander worked as a foreman for a bridge-building company before going into business for himself in 1917. He studied bridge design in London, England in 1921. In 1929, he started his own company when he was only 26.  After that, in sequence, he established two engineering partnerships.  Alexander & Repass built freeways and apartments, airfields, sewage systems, power plants and trestles. The firm was responsible for the construction of the Whitehurst Freeway, the Tidal Basin Bridge, and an extension to the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. With his business partner, George Higbee, Alexander designed the Tuskegee Airfield and the UI central heating plant, its power plant, and a major steam tunnel beneath the Iowa River.  In 1934, Alexander was appointed as one of a 12-member commission to investigate the social and economic conditions in Haiti. In 1946, he was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Engineering by Howard University.  Alexander was appointed Governor of the United States Virgin Islands by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1954 -- the first Republican governor there since the establishment of the civil government.  In 1947, the UI named Alexander one of 100 outstanding alumni among 30,000 graduates.

"Alexander the Great," Bridge Builder

The article reviews Alexander's life from growing up in Ottumwa, Iowa, football player and student in the College of Engineering, professional work with his firm Alexander and Repass, and time as Governor of the US Virgin Islands.

The Palimpsest was a historical magazine published the State Historical Society of Iowa from 1920 to 1996.

The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa

–engineer, designer, builder, and community leader–built a number of structures still in use around the nation. "Engineering is a tough field at best and it may be twice as tough for a Negro," a professor at the State University of Iowa told Alexander in 1909. Moreover, the dean had "never heard of a Negro engineer." Yet 40 years later Carter Woodson, founder of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, recognized that Alexander had overcome those discouraging words to become "the most successful Negro businessman in America." That same year Ebony Magazine profiled Alexander as an accomplished and wealthy African American businessman. His commercial success as a design engineer is noteworthy for an unusual business structure: an interracial partnership.

Notable Projects

Tidal Basin bridge and seawall, Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy of Richard Weingardt Consultants, Inc.


University of Iowa Power Plant, designed by A. Alexander, soon after construction in 1927 (from Iowa Digital Library)


Others include:

  •  sewage treatment plant in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 1929. 
  • a large power plant at Columbus, Nebraska
  • the $3.5-million Whitehall Freeway along the Potomac River, Washington, D.C.
  • numerous bridges for the Chicago, Rock Island, and Pacific Railroad in western Iowa and Missouri
  • Moton Airfield in Tuskegee, Alabama (originally built as an airbase for training U.S. flyers during WWII)
  • a million-dollar apartment building on the Frederick Douglas Memorial Estate, Anacostia, Maryland, for the National Association for Colored Women.

Learn more