Two centuries ago, a Tennessee slave named Moses McKissack, started a trade in construction after he was taught the trade of making bricks by his Scottish slave master. Today, in 2019, that business is the oldest, still running, African-American-owned construction management firm and it is headed by Moses’ great-granddaughter – Cheryl McKissack Daniel.
McKissack & McKissack was incorporated in 1905 by Cheryl’s grandfather and great uncle as a family business which, over the next 60 years, has been responsible for building homes, hospitals, and colleges, including the Tuskegee Airforce Base, where black pilots trained to desegregate World War II.
Making its mark on some of America’s biggest landmarks, Cheryl has been able to steer the fortunes and credibility of the company to a point where she is sure that although it is obviously a male-dominated industry, her successes speak for her.
As president of McKissack & McKissack, she manages projects ranging from a park in downtown Brooklyn to getting many of New York’s trains to run on time. Her company is on board to revamp Long Island’s railroad hub which runs underneath the Brooklyn Nets’ home.
In fact, McKissack Daniel’s business is assigned to just about every major infrastructure improvement project financed by the city and state, including the current construction at LaGuardia Airport and the new Terminal One at JFK.
But this has not always been an easy thing for her to do. Sharing her story with CBS News, she described how with no training in architecture, she had to devise the smartest ways of handling this business that she and her sisters were so immersed into by their father, William, who took over the business in 1968.
“We would go to work with him every Saturday starting at ten years old, walking construction sites, tracing documents, you know, learning about building systems early in life,” McKissack Daniel said. “It was all ingrained in us.”
In 1982, her father suffered from a stroke and word got out so fast that, as she recalls, her mother, Leatrice B. McKissack, unsure if her husband was going to live or not, had to decide on a quick decision. This was because, she received calls from five major architectural and engineering companies, showing interest in the company.
“The business was so good, they all wanted it.”
The former school teacher she was, Leatrice did everything possible thereafter with her Masters in Psychology knowledge guiding her to ensure that the company remained as competitive in the league of big names in construction as possible.
As part of the things she was in charge of was managing a $50 million complex at Howard University and a project at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis.
By the year 2000, McKissack Daniel took over the helm and moved the headquarters from Nashville to New York. But she needed a big miracle or some form of extraordinary results to be able to break into the Big Apple. And she got that through affirmative action, she said.
“People do business with people who look like them,” she said. “All the work that we’ve done outside of New York, it didn’t matter in New York.” And so, she decided to be what the people wanted: be one of them.
And she did this by making her work matter to the communities as much as it did to her.
Now, sixty-one percent of her hires are minorities, while 34% are women. When her company worked on the $325 million patient pavilion at Harlem Hospital Center, it accepted job applications from locals in the neighborhood. She said she received 7,000 applications from people looking for work. She hired 200 of those people, and later, she developed a job training workforce program to try to place the rest in other fields across the city.
She wants to show women of color “that the construction industry can build wealth” and that the construction industry can look like them.
McKissack Daniel has two daughters, and her sisters have three – but “not one” is showing signs of wanting to take the reins, she said.
“I may have to hold on for the grandkids,” she said with a laugh.