News & Politics

The Descendant of a Slave Got the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture Built

Deryl McKissack says she felt she had to be involved.

Photograph by Evy Mages

There’s a Maya Angelou quote on one of the walls of the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. It reads, in part: “I am the dream and the hope of the slave.” When you talk to Deryl McKissack, its meaning becomes much clearer.

Her great, great grandfather came to this country in 1790 as a slave. He was owned by a prominent contractor who used him as a builder. He passed the trade down through the generations, with McKissack’s grandfather and great uncle becoming the first licensed black architects in the Southeastern United States. Today, McKissack runs her own architecture and construction services firm, McKissack & McKissack, in Washington.

Its most recent assignment: managing the design and construction of the African American Museum of History and Culture.

McKissack says she set her sights on landing the contract to oversee the museum’s construction about 15 years ago. The idea for the museum was already in the works, and given her family’s history, she says she felt she had to be involved.

Though her firm had handled other government projects, including work on the Treasury Department, she knew she needed to get experience on the National Mall to be able to compete for the Smithsonian contract when the time came.

Deryl McKissack, courtesy of McKissack & McKissack.

After 9/11, her company landed a contract to restore the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, and upgrade their security. That was step one.

Step two was going after the contract to build the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial. Up against much bigger firms, McKissack says she invited herself to tag along with leaders of the memorial’s foundation on a trip to Minneapolis to select a sculptor: “I found out where they were gonna be. When they walked into the lobby, I was sitting there.”

She won the job. McKissack & McKissack was architect of record for the MLK Memorial, as well as its construction manager.

Finally, about six years ago, the Smithsonian put out the call for a construction management firm. Armed with the prior National Mall experience, McKissack says she was confident she could compete, but not necessarily that she could win. The day she got the call that the work was hers was “one of the happiest days of my life.”

The role of a construction manager isn’t a flashy one. But it is vital. McKissack’s team, led by Lisa Anders and Charlie Yetter, was responsible for overseeing and coordinating the four architecture firms, nearly 20 designers, and dozens of engineers and sub-consultants involved in creating the museum.

“We’re the glue that keeps a project in place, and helps it stay on the [track] that our clients want it to go in,” McKissack explains.

Now that the project is finished, what’s next? Says McKissack: “The next piece we need is a women’s museum.”

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Senior Editor

Marisa M. Kashino joined Washingtonian in 2009 as a staff writer, and became a senior editor in 2014. She oversees the magazine’s real estate and home design coverage, and writes long-form feature stories. She was a 2020 Livingston Award finalist for her two-part investigation into a possible wrongful conviction stemming from a murder in rural Virginia.