Children’s books, no matter the color or ethnicity, are rarely given their just desserts in reviews, and for that Fredrick L. McKissack and his wife, Patricia, cannot be blamed. In fact, this inexhaustible team did all they could possibly do to give African American children’s books a notable place in our literary canon.
That monumental task will now fall solely on Mrs. McKissack’s considerable talents with the death of her partner, Fredrick on April 28 in Chesterfield, Mo., a St. Louis suburb, according to an obituary in Monday’s New York Times. He was 73.
According to his wife, her husband’s cause of death was congestive heart failure.
When you think of Black children’s books, the publishers, writers, and editors, Wade and Cheryl Hudson come quickly to mind in terms of a husband and wife team in the genre. Inevitably, the McKissacks (who were married in 1964) are the next and together they were incomparable in their work and productivity with Fredrick doing the digging, the sometimes unenviable research and Patricia stitching and weaving those sources into the awarding winning books.
Trained as a civil engineer, Fredrick set aside a career that was consistent with his family’s overall success in architecture and construction, to pursue a far more risky literary venture. But encouraged by his wife, who had also forsaken a career as a teacher and editor, his quest—their quest—began in earnest in the early 1980s.
“In those days there were so few books for and about the African-American child,” McKissack said in 2006 in a joint interview with his wife. “Black kids needed to see themselves in books, ” and viewed in a strong positive way.
Born in Nashville on Aug. 12, 1939, Fredrick seemed destined to a career as an architect, eminently successful professions for his father and grandfather. Even his great-great-great grandfather, the New York Times’ noted in its obit, was a master builder in the early 19th century; he was also an Ashanti from West Africa.
Attend any Black economic development conference and you’ll find there’s a table or exhibit set up by McKissack & McKissack, indicating they are the oldest African-American-owned architectural and construction firm in the nation. The firm is currently involved in the Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn and the Columbia University expansion project, among a plethora of building plans.
After completing high school, Fredrick joined the Marines. Upon returning to civilian life he re-enrolled to Tennessee State University and earned his civil engineering degree. Along with his academic duties, he participated in the civil rights movement, including the momentous sit-ins to desegregate various department stores and restaurants. Eventually, he launched his own construction company but it didn’t thrive as he expected and that’s when he and his wife, who was equally frustrated in her work, embarked on their fruitful literary odyssey.
“The McKissacks wrote biographies of W. E. B. Du Bois, Harriet Tubman and the black cowboy Nat Love,” the Times reported. “They wrote histories of the Pullman train porters, Negro leagues baseball and the civil rights movement. They examined the Underground Railroad, the role of black sailors in the 19th-century whaling industry and the Great Migration of blacks from the South.
“Most of their books were published by Scholastic; though Mr. McKissack was not always listed as an author, the couple always said that they were a team and accepted numerous awards jointly, including the Regina Medal from the Catholic Library Association…..Among the couple’s better-known titles are ‘Christmas in the Big House, Christmas in the Quarters,’ which won the Coretta Scott King Author Award in 1995; ‘Sojourner Truth: Ain’t I a Woman?’; ‘Black Hands, White Sails: The Story of African-American Whalers’; and ‘Days of Jubilee: The End of Slavery in the United States.’”
Fredrick is survived by his wife; three sons, Fredrick, Jr., Robert and John; three brothers, Bill, Joel, and Moses; and five grandchildren.