Copyright 2004 By Bob Hibbs
Saturday August 14, 2004 

Postcard 257: Iowa City engineer-builder and football standout 


a alexander

Called “Alexander the Great” by Iowa football fans, Archie Alexander became a noted design engineer 
and presidential appointee during an illustrious career which included building the heating plant and 
steam tunnel at Iowa City’s Burlington Street bridge. Images courtesy State Historical Society of Iowa


By Bob Hibbs  

Iowa’s first black football player – a highly-respected three-year starting tackle – became a successful design engineer and construction supervisor on projects which included the University of Iowa heating plant and its steam tunnel under the Iowa River at Burlington Street.

During an era of blatant racism which including the UI engineering dean telling him he had never heard of a black engineer, Archie Alexander refused to allow racial barriers to block success. He overcame regularly; and, became the first black graduate of the UI College of Engineering.

He went on to an illustrious 42-year career which included building bridges, railroad trestles, freeways, apartments, airfields and power plants scattered through most of the 48 continental states.

Born in 1888 in Ottumwa, when he was 11 the family moved to Des Moines, which Alexander called home the rest of his life. After graduating high school in 1905, he attended Highland Park College and the Cummins Art School before entering UI in 1908.

During his successful college career in Iowa City, he became a strong football player who was popular with both teammates and fans. While the average player was 5’7” and weighed 135 pounds, Alexander was considered a big man at 6’2” and 177 pounds.

During his last season in 1911, the Iowa-Iowa State game brought a record crowd of 8,000 to the Athletic Park field along the Iowa River north of Burlington Street. Season tickets were $1.50 for three home games.

Upon graduation in 1912, he took a laboring job at 25 cents an hour in an engineering steel shop after every engineer in Des Moines refused to hire him despite good grades and football success. By the time he left two years later to start his own company, he headed bridge construction field work in Iowa and Minnesota.

While working at that first job, Alexander had met engineer George Higbee, a white who in 1917 partnered with Alexander in a venture called Alexander and Higbee. Eight years later when Higbee was killed in a construction accident.

During 1921 Higbee had assumed operation of the firm while Alexander took a refresher course at the University of London.

Alexander ran the firm alone after his partner’s death. In 1926 he was contracted to build the UI heating plant, then in 1927 the associated power plant and the steam tunnel beneath the Iowa River to serve the growing west campus, where the following year would witness opening of a new University Hospitals facility.

In 1929 a classmate who had become an instructor at the UI college, Maurice Repass, joined Alexander as a junior partner. That began a long, successful association during which the firm was renamed Alexander and Repass.

In 1949 Ebony magazine described the Des Moines firm as the nation’s “most successful interracial business.”

Although Alexander moved freely in the white world, he was abundantly aware of racial problems. He headed the Des Moines chapter of the NAACP, the local Inter-Racial Commission and as a trustee of both Howard University and the Tuskegee Institute, two of the nation’s most prestigious black centers of higher education.

He also lectured regularly at Howard.

Alexander, a life-long Republican, served during the 1930s and early 1940s as assistant to the chairman of the Iowa GOP. In 1952 his early backing of Dwight Eisenhower resulted after Ike’s election in an office for this black man from Iowa – appointment in 1954 as governor of the largely black Virgin Islands.

Alexander proved ill suited to a political post. His efforts to “help those people get on their feet” proved a disaster, including serious damage to Alexander’s health. He resigned after just 16 months, and died of a heart attack in January 1958.

He bequeathed $200,000 for scholarships to help others.

Next Saturday: The Iowa City Academy experiment.

Bob Hibbs collects local postcards and other historic ephemera and researches history related to them. 

Return to Postcard Index