As the CEO of McKissack & McKissack, she’s had the huge undertaking of overseeing project management for the Smithsonian's newest museum on the National Mall.
But even that didn’t prepare her for setting foot in the (nearly) finished product last weekend, when the Smithsonian hosted a reception for donors. “I planned to go for two hours, and I was there for four hours just trying to cover the basement part,” she said.
The museum portrays a story that McKissack feels deeply connected to as the great-great-grandaughter of a former slave. The history galleries in the venue, which opens to the public Saturday, begin on its lowest levels with slaves crossing the Atlantic on slave ships.
"What really came across and hit me hard was how much of an economic boost the slave trade gave the United States," said McKissack. "My ancestors were right in there, working for nothing for generations.”
The museum’s story resonates with her through those ancestors, the founders of McKissack & McKissack who were paid less for their architectural drawings than their white counterparts. Who nearly weren’t allowed to take the licensure exam for architects in the state of Tennessee until the governor intervened. Who in 1942 garnered the $5.7 million contract to build the 99th Pursuit Squadron Air Base in Tuskegee, Alabama, which at the time was the largest federal contract ever awarded to a black-owned firm.
The NMAAHC isn’t the firm’s first project on the National Mall connected to the civil rights movement either: McKissack & McKissack also held the design-build contract for the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial that debuted in 2011.
“I feel like my family’s history and my ancestors have a strong history and contribution to America,” she said. “It’s the American story. So both of those projects were really close to me and my heart because of how my company and family are so integrated in the story and what these two projects mean to the country.”
McKissack’s firm has carved out robust business working on these kinds of high-profile D.C. projects, something she says she pursued intentionally with an eye toward working on the NMAAHC someday. McKissack & McKissack spearheaded the renovations of the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials and it's built the platforms for the last two presidential inaugurations and will do so again in January.
“With each one, it’s a contribution to the country and the world, and to be a part of that history in the making is really rewarding,” she said. McKissack was an honoree in Washington Business Journal's Women Who Mean Business program in 2011.
McKissack also made her own contribution to the museum in the form of a Hugo McCloud painting she hopes will someday be displayed in the museum’s fine art gallery. Her family is also in talks to donate historical artifacts from the early years of McKissack & McKissack to the collection.
The other moment that drove home the point that the museum was a pinnacle in her career was walking through its exhibits a few weeks ago with her 12-year-old daughter, Ahlyah.
“In the first 30 minutes, she was like a deer in headlights, saying, ‘Really, all this happened?’” McKissack said. “I think all kids should go through there … it makes you feel very proud to be African-American, when often times our kids are made to feel like they shouldn’t be proud. There’s no way an African-American child could walk through there and not feel great about who they are.”