“Leaders become great not because of their power, but because of their ability to empower others.”–John Maxwell
Deryl McKissack has been an inspiration to The Darden Group LLC’s founder and President, Akilah Darden, since Akilah was in high school. As the President and CEO of McKissack and McKissack for the last 25 years, Deryl has led her firm to manage over $15B in projects nationwide. These include the Museum of African American History and Culture, the Martin Luther King Jr Memorial, Navy Pier Centennial Projects, MGM National Harbor Casino, and many more.
Her recent sharing of her family’s history on LinkedIn led us to truly appreciate the depth and impact of her family’s legacy. Deryl, a licensed professional engineer and registered project management professional, is part of the fifth generation of her family to work in the design and construction field. We respectfully want to preserve, honor, and elevate her story and the stories of her ancestors.
Moses McKissack was brought from Ghana as a slave owned by a prominent contractor. In his captivity he learned the skills of a master carpenter and builder that would be passed down to his sons.
One of those sons, Gabriel Moses, was also known as Moses II, and Deryl’s great-grandfather. In Giles County, Tennessee, the six sons of Moses II inherited the legacy of skills from Moses I, and are associated with many buildings that still stand in the area today.
In 1905, Deryl’s grandfather Moses III and his brother Calvin launched the first McKissack firm in Tennessee. By 1922 the pair were not just the first registered architects in Tennessee, but the first licensed Black architects in the southeastern US. Moses III was appointed to the White House Conference on Housing Problems by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
In 1941 McKissack and McKissack received licenses in multiple southeastern states and was acknowledged for its competence by Tennessee authorities. By 1942 the firm received the biggest federal contract ever awarded to a Black firm at the time, building an air base in Tuskegee, Alabama.
By 1968, Deryl’s father William DeBerry McKissack took the helm of the firm, already planning for his daughters Deryl and Cheryl to enter the business as well. Deryl even shared how her father worked closely with international architect Hilyard Robinson at Howard University to design a custom curriculum for herself and her sister.
Deryl’s mother Leatrice assumed the role of CEO at McKissack & McKissack when William had to step down after a stroke. In 1987 Leatrice was awarded the design contract for the National Civil Rights Museum in Nashville, Tennessee. And by 1990, she was recognized with the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Female Entrepreneur Award.
Deryl is not just an industry leader but a mentor and speaker. She and her firm have reinvented the landscape of Washington, D.C. through work on landmarks, schools, and public works projects.
She has created a 7-step plan to dismantle systemic racism in the Architecture, Engineering, and Construction industries. Deryl recently presented for the Construction Management Association of America about the contributions of Black talent, and the hurdles that still exist for these professionals.
We love the McKissack and McKissack story of perseverance, grit, moxie, and using the skills learned in adversity to make life better for untold numbers of Americans. While there is still much work to be done, we are grateful that Deryl led us through the story of her legacy to reflect on the reasons this work is important.