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Born: 12/12/1886, Died: 7/7/1975


Frederick McDonald Massiah was a native of Christ Church parish, Barbados, in the British West Indies. He was living in Philadelphia, PA, as early as 1904 or 1905 (sources differ on the year), but traveled back to Barbados in 1909 before returning to Philadelphia in 1910. In April 1910, U.S. immigration records described his occupation as mason. That same month, when the 1910 U.S. census was taken, his occupation was described as house plasterer. In either case, he seems to have acquired a skilled trade while still living in Barbados. Later in life, Massiah stated that he started his career in Philadelphia as a laborer, while studying engineering and architecture at night. He attended classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, as well as courses in civil engineering at the Drexel Institute of Technology (now Drexel University). By the end of the second decade of the twentieth century, Massiah had established his own business as a builder or building contractor in Philadelphia.

Massiah was one of the first successful African American building contractors in Philadelphia, pioneering in the technology of reinforced concrete construction. He established his business during a period when it was nearly impossible for racial minorities to obtain financing, insurance, and acceptance in the trade unions. Massiah first came to public notice in the fall of 1925, when he was acclaimed in the African American press for his successful construction of an elliptical concrete dome on the Ascension of Our Lord Roman Catholic church in the Kensington section of Philadelphia. Two years later, in the fall of 1927, Massiah and his construction company were again featured in the press when he was selected as the general contractor for the Walnut Plaza Apartments at 63rd and Walnut Streets, in the Cobbs Creek section of West Philadelphia. Massiahs work on this project led to the award, in January 1929, of the bronze medal in business by the William E. Harmon Foundation for outstanding work in building engineering, especially concrete construction (quoted from the New York Times issue of 3 January 1929, page 12). The project was also cited as a model by the Philadelphia city engineers to the University of Pennsylvanias engineering program in the Towne Scientific School. Having established his firm's reputation, Massiah went on to a forty-five-year career, during which he won numerous private and government contracts. These included the William Donner X-Ray laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania, the Trenton Sewage Disposal Plan, Capehart Housing Project at Fort Meade, Maryland, and the Morton Housing Development in the Germantown section of Philadelphia. Massiah was a member of the Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, the Masonic Order, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Massiah became a U.S. citizen on April 29, 1931.

Written by William Whitaker, and Sandra L. Tatman.

Clubs and Membership Organizations

  • National Association for the Advancement of Colored People

School Affiliations

  • Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
  • Drexel Institute

Links to Other Resources


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