Once described as an “imposing mass of steel and concrete over K Street,” the Whitehurst Freeway, the city’s first elevated motorway, opened in 1949 with great fanfare. Built to ease traffic on M Street and speed automobiles to and from downtown Washington through Georgetown to Maryland and Virginia, the freeway cost over three million dollars, took two years to build, is just over a mile long. It is named after Captain H.C. Whitehurst, a former director of highways for the District who originally envisioned the concept. The construction was executed by an interracial firm headed by African American Archie Alexander.
Archie Alexander was born May 14, 1888 in Ottumwa, Iowa, to Prince and Mary Alexander. He became a mathematician and engineer. At 11 years old, his family moved to a farm outside Des Moines in pursuit of better educational opportunities. Prince became head custodian at the Des Moines National Bank, a prestigious job for an African American during those times. After attending Oak Park Grammar School, where he was the only African American, Archie attended Oak Park High School and Highland Park College for one year. Archie began his engineering education at the State University of Iowa (The University of Iowa). Although he initially went to Des Moines College and attempted to join the white-only football team there, he was rejected. As a result, he played tackle from 1910 to 1912 at Iowa and was nicknamed ‘Alexander the Great’.” During the summer, Alexander worked as a draftsman for Marsh Engineers, a Des Moines bridge-designing firm and in 1912. He received a Bachelor of Science degree, becoming the University of Iowa’s first black football player and engineer. He continued his education at the University of London, where he took some coursework in bridge design in 1921, and obtained his civil engineering degree in 1925 at the State University of Iowa. Howard University later granted him an honorary doctorate in engineering in 1947.
After graduation, Alexander worked as a foreman for a bridge-building company. He faced open hostility during his studies with one professor commenting: “a Negro could not hope to succeed as an engineer…” Prejudice followed him after graduation and prevented Alexander from being appointed to any of the engineering posts to which he made application.
Alexander, however, was not one to give up when he encountered such difficulties. He decided that if he could not find an engineering post then he would join a firm as a laborer and work his way up. He took a manual labor job with the Marsh Engineering Company and in two years he showed that he could overcome the prejudice by rising through the company until he was in charge of the business’s bridge building program in Iowa and Minnesota.
After two years with the Marsh Engineering Company, in 1914 he left to form his own engineering company: A. A. Alexander, Inc. Desiring to extend his construction projects beyond minority clients, he became partners with a white contractor, George F. Higbee, in 1917. While at the Marsh Engineering Company, Alexander had become friendly Higbee. The partnership ended sadly in 1925 when Higbee was tragically killed in a construction accident.
For four years Alexander continued to run the company on his own, gaining a reputation as a talented construction engineer building fine bridges, viaducts and tunnels. Then in 1929 he took on a new partner, Maurice A Repass, who had been a fellow student with Alexander at the Iowa College of Engineering. Their firm, now named Alexander and Repass, was so successful that the press called it: “… the nation’s most successful interracial business.” They were responsible for the construction of many roads and bridges, including the $3.3 million Whitehurst Freeway, the Tidal Basin Bridge, and an extension to the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. They also designed the Tuskegee Airfield and the Iowa State University heating and cooling system.
Alexander’s prominence did not allow him to escape the clutches of racism. One of the worst examples occurred in 1944, when he purchased a large Des Moines home in a fashionable white neighborhood and had to fight a restrictive covenant. The morning after he moved into his new home, he and his wife, Audra, woke up to a cross burning on their front lawn. He also took part in the political life of Iowa, serving as the assistant chairman of the Iowa Republican State Committee in 1932 and again in 1940. His outstanding contribution to the Republican Party was rewarded in 1954 when he was appointed as governor of the Virgin Islands by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. He was the first Republican governor there since the establishment of the civil government. His tenure at the post only lasted sixteen months and controversial. In 1955, he was highly criticized for favoring old business partners in contracts for road building on St. Thomas. The United States House of Representatives launched a probe and he subsequently resigned on August 18, 1955, ostensibly for health reasons. He died in 1958 in Des Moines, Iowa. Alexander was also a member of Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity. It was a sad episode which almost certainly hastened Alexander’s death and must have left him with much sadness after a life filled with so many achievements against all the odds that were stacked against him, Summing up his life it was said, “Engineer, businessman, loyal and active member of the Republican Party, civil rights and interracial leader, Alexander was, ironically, a failure only in the world of state diplomacy. The one failure is ironic in that surely he had to be a diplomat in the largely white world in which he lived and worked. In 1975, on the death of Alexander’s wife, the University of Iowa, Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, and Howard University each received a $100K for engineering scholarships from a trust fund set up by Alexander in his will. Ebony magazine featured him in “Bridge-Building Team.” Ebony 4 (September 1949): 59-60. The freeway is named after Captain H.C. Whitehurst, a former director of highways for the District of Columbia who originally envisioned the concept.