WASHINGTON — From the rooftop of McKissack & McKissack’s D.C. headquarters on K Street, CEO Deryl McKissack can see the Nationals ballpark, the D.C. convention center and the U.S. Treasury Building. A few blocks further are the Lincoln and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorials. But for McKissack, they’re not just landmarks – they’re markers of the way her family has for generations helped shaped the nation’s capital.
Deryl is the great-great-granddaughter of Moses McKissack. Today, she leads the company he set the groundwork for in its mission to continue changing the face of communities, one project at a time.
WUSA9 went on a walking tour of the city to talk with Deryl on a bright and beaming August day. When she looks out into her adopted hometown, she sees beyond the skyline, beyond the buildings and bridges.
“I see the enhancement of people’s lives,” Deryl said. “I see beauty.”
In every part of this city of idealists and strivers, you can feel the outstretched hands of Deryl McKissack’s great-great-grandfather Moses. He was an enslaved man brought to this nation from Ghana in 1790.
Moses McKissack learned the trade of building from his overseer, earned his freedom and passed down what he learned through his sons and daughters. He laid the foundation for what would become the first African American architectural firm in the country in 1905.
From an early age, Deryl knew this would be part of her own life’s journey.
“I have never wanted to do anything other than what I’m doing,” Deryl said. “So I was laser-focused. I never thought about running away.”
In 1990, Deryl created an outgrowth of the first McKissack & McKissack that her forefathers built. In a field dominated by men, there were no renderings for this path.
“I was never invited to the country clubs where my counterparts were always going and playing golf,” Deryl said. “But I feel like I excelled because I just kept going. I would not allow what they said to me or what they did to me to stop me in my tracks.”
She knew how it felt to be left out of the power structure, so she built her own opportunities.
“It’s not just your ethnicity or gender. It's also where you came from, how you were trained. I want all of those perspectives, all of those different perspectives, to help us come to the best solution, It’s important that everybody have a voice," Deryl said.
For a front-row seat to some of McKissack & McKissack’s most notable projects – look no further than the National Mall. The company has laid hands on some of the iconic structures etched in the hearts of Americans. First stop: the Lincoln Memorial.
“This has become a memorial for change. And that’s why it’s so significant,” Deryl said.
Her company upgraded the Lincoln Memorial and installed a protective buffer that aligned security with the sacred ground. The place where a “King” offered a message of hope and a call to action, all linked to a dream.
Next, we walked through the constricted space that leads to the Martin Luther King Memorial and got a sense of the struggle and tightness that existed during the civil unrest of King’s time. Then and now, you get a feel for what King referred to as the “mountain of despair.”
McKissack & McKissack also managed the long-awaited memorial to our nation’s most notable ambassador for non-violence. Here, you see Dr. Martin Luther King’s likeness – carved into the Stone of Hope. It signifies a future for the civil rights movement he helped to galvanize.
“You know, I often talk about, how did we make it through slavery, the civil rights movement after that, Jim Crow laws, all of the dark forces that came against African Americans to just live?” Deryl said as she reflected upon that era of our nation’s history. “So how do you really not just live but thrive doing that? And I think it’s because we never let society define who we were. We define ourselves.”
A defining moment for the company came when McKissack & McKissack was awarded the contract to be part of what Deryl calls the “crown jewel” of her portfolio: serving as project manager for the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
“There’s so many things that African Americans have done for this country and contributed to this country that have been missed,” Deryl said. “It’s continuing to capture the stories and so many parts of our history that have been removed unfairly. So for us to be part of that, I’m sure my ancestors are super happy.”
From its roots here in D.C. to Baltimore, Chicago, Los Angeles, Dallas and Austin – the McKissack family story has been interwoven into the history of our nation during times of challenge and controversy.
And that includes a pandemic. Deryl battled COVID-19 – all while leading her company through its next chapter.
“Our country’s character is in jeopardy and who better than us to help fix it, because we always have issues on a job site. And, what do we do? We bring all parties together. We understand everybody’s expectations," Deryl said. “And that’s how we build these amazing edifices and museums.”
McKissack & McKissack is now celebrating 30 years in the industry. The company is working on several national projects including the Obama Presidential Center and the George H.W. Bush Library Marine One Pavilion.
This interactive map that will take you around the DC area – into some of the McKissack & McKissack projects that might just surprise you. Those inaugural presidential stands you see erected every four years… they have a hand in those too.
McKissack & McKissack’s work continues to grow across the country and Deryl says they are excited to continue to build on a mighty legacy, changing hearts and lives with each new endeavor that carries their storied family name.