Alabama: Tuskegee Institute Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Tuskegee Institute was the first college in the Deep South to offer educational opportunities for African Americans. Its founder, Booker T. Washington, is one of the most famous men in American history. The institute played a notable role in the struggle for civil rights in the South.

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Tuskegee Institute National Historic Site

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Tuskegee Institute, AL 36087

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Historically black colleges are now not the only educational options for African Americans, but they have played a crucial role in the black experience. Though not the first historically black college, Tuskegee is the most famous. For many years, it was associated with Booker T. Washington, one of the first African Americans to be respected nationwide. The history of Tuskegee is a microcosm of the history of race relations in the South.

Educating the Excluded

The Tuskegee Institute was formed as the result of a compromise. In the late 1870’s, southern whites had once again succeeded in reestablishing political control after the brief window of black and Northern predominance in the aftermath of the Civil War. The whites, however, found they could not totally go back to the time of slavery. For one thing, African Americans now had the right to move, and many of them were migrating to the West. George Campbell, a former slave owner, realized that some sort of opportunity had to be given to local African Americans to keep them in Alabama. With input from James Adams, a former slave, Campbell and other Macon County whites decided to set up an educational institute that would give African Americans opportunity for education and training while carefully maintaining their second-class status.

Booker T. Washington’s arrival at Tuskegee was not smooth. It was not expected that a black man would be the first head of the institution. Campbell asked Samuel Chapman Armstrong, the white, Hawaiian-born missionary who had founded America’s first black college in 1866, the Hampton Institute, to recommend a candidate. Campbell had a white man in mind. Armstrong, however, insisted on recommending his most talented student–Booker T. Washington, a black man born in West Virginia. Armstrong did not back down, and in May, 1881, the trustees of the institute reluctantly accepted Washington.

The original physical plant of the institution was not imposing. The official founding of the school occurred on July 4, 1881, in Butler Chapel, a church set up for freed slaves some years before. The school started in a one-room shanty, but soon a full set of buildings was constructed, mostly built by the first group of students. Washington believed that manual labor was an important part of the sort of education he hoped to impart to his students. Thus, part of their education was building the college itself.

Washington had been thoroughly trained at Hampton and went immediately to work at fashioning the new school’s curriculum. Washington shared Armstrong’s view that the best sort of education for the African Americans of the postwar South was one that emphasized agricultural, industrial, and job-related skills. These skills, it was hoped, would raise the students above a subsistence level and enable them to provide for themselves and their families. Such abstract fields as poetry, philosophy, history, and the theoretical sciences were not taught at Tuskegee. The reason was partially because Washington genuinely did not think those were the highest priorities for the institution’s students, and partially to reassure the whites of Macon County and Alabama as a whole that the black population was not receiving an education that would threaten white supremacy. Washington insisted that he did not mean to impose vocational education as the only possible training for African Americans.

The physical plant of the institute was decisively remodeled in 1895. The original buildings now seemed ramshackle and outdated. They were appropriate for a school desiring to impart the rudiments of vocational training to a poor and oppressed student body. However, they did not suit what Tuskegee was becoming: an institute for a center for advanced research in industrial and agricultural processes. Washington solicited a new wave of money from wealthy northern businessmen.

Tuskegee was not just a base for a black academic identity but a symbol of black social progress. Washington became the first national leader of the African American community. Politicians, especially Republicans such as President Theodore Roosevelt, treated Washington with respect and lauded him as an example for his people.

A Center for Black Self-Reliance

Robert Russa Moton succeeded Washington as president of Tuskegee in 1925. Moton was also a graduate of Hampton. Legend has it that his given name was Robert Russell Morton, but the northern whites in charge at Hampton found his southern accent so thick that they wrote down the name by which he was known throughout his career. Moton stressed that Tuskegee was different from other black colleges in that African Americans were in control at every level. Moton turned Tuskegee from a vocational institute into a full-fledged college offering a range of academic programs equivalent to those of most American universities. His biggest achievement was founding a veterans hospital to treat many of the black soldiers who had fought in World War I. The white community was fiercely opposed to this hospital and agitated against it for many years. The role of the federal government in funding the hospital, though, looked forward to the day when civil rights issues would be addressed on a national rather than a state level.

Scientific Advances, Military Valor

George Washington Carver came to Tuskegee in 1896. Hearing of Carver’s expertise as an agricultural chemist, Washington hired him to head Tuskegee’s Agriculture Program. With Carver, Tuskegee’s academic mission went beyond vocational training. Carver was a scientist whose experiments in crop diversification meant a great deal to the entire American farm industry and probably helped it survive the Great Depression of the 1930’s. A less spectacular event was the founding of a school of veterinary medicine in 1945. This was not only a necessary resource for farmers who needed their animals treated by trained professionals, but a way for African Americans to enter the field of medicine as a whole. It also offset the advantage of whites in the area who could draw on the expertise of nearby Auburn University’s veterinary school.

Tuskegee’s knowledge-intensive atmosphere (including its offering instruction in piloting) made it the obvious site when the government decided to train black airmen for military service before and during World War II. The “Tuskegee Airmen” fought valiantly in the war and helped pave the way for the integration of the United States military. This, in turn, had a pivotal effect on the wider fight for civil rights and against racism.

Tuskegee itself was not immune to the changes that its research helped launch. After 1945, a new generation of Tuskegee faculty members such as Charles Gomillion were no longer content to accept second-class status. Gomillion was active in a campaign to secure African Americans the right to vote. Theoretically, everybody could vote in Macon County. In practice, however, a poll tax specifying literacy and property qualifications excluded almost all of the black community. Gomillion built a coalition of Tuskegee staff, working-class African Americans, and whites who accepted that segregation had to end. By the mid-1960’s, these groups had enabled everybody to vote and had achieved integration of the public school system. In fact, the students at Tuskegee became so militant that older men such as Gomillion were sidelined. This ferment died down soon after, but the old racial rules were forever changed. The effect of this change was to make the Tuskegee area in the twenty-first century a place where racial differences mattered less than most ever thought they would.

New Generations, New Challenges

A hostile depiction of Tuskegee can be found in Ralph Ellison’s great novel Invisible Man (1952). Ellison has his semiautobiographical protagonist go through a college much like Tuskegee (which Ellison himself attended in the 1930’s). The college’s goal of racial uplift is belied by the hypocrisy of its conformist president and its self-serving trustees. Ellison, an Oklahoman who lived most of his life in New York, did not like the southern ambience of Tuskegee, which he found backward and out-of-step with modern times. Though Tuskegee surely did not applaud the searing criticism from a famous alumnus, it eventually mentioned Ellison prominently on its Web page.

Tuskegee was also criticized from within over a long tradition of black radicalism. This began with William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (1868-1963), who called for a turning away from vocational education to an emphasis on the so-called talented tenth of African Americans who would serve as leaders for the other 90 percent of the race. It was assumed that the talented tenth would not attend historically black colleges such as Tuskegee but prestigious, traditionally white universities such as Harvard, from which W. E. B. Du Bois himself graduated. As more and more “mainstream” colleges opened their doors to African Americans in the decades after 1945, Tuskegee University (as, after several changes of name, it was now called) seemed to many more a part of history than of the present.

As African Americans became better educated and better off financially, Tuskegee’s student body became more assertive. The students became less ready to accept the tight discipline and strict campus rules that had been in effect since the Washington era. Campus life at Tuskegee became much like that at any other college. Though Tuskegee still produces engineers and scientists, its graduates go on to careers of every sort, a good example being the comedian Keenen Ivory Wayans, star of the television show In Living Color.

Places to Visit

The National Historic Site itself was set up in 1974. It represents the recognition of African American experience within the history of Alabama. The site is centered on the George Washington Carver Museum and the Oaks, Booker T. Washington’s former residence. Guided tours are available at the latter. The most visible symbol of Tuskegee, however, is the sculpture by Charles Keck of Booker T. Washington lifting the veil of ignorance from a freed slave. The freed slave is flanked by an anvil and a plow that recall the practical work that Washington advocated. The lifting of the veil represents Tuskegee’s longtime goal of educating the dispossessed and downtrodden.

Tuskegee has made a palpable effort to preserve its historic buildings wherever possible. Buildings are demolished only when they cannot be saved. Band Cottage, the oldest building on the campus, was built in 1889. For many years, the cottage was the practice area for the university’s bands. A building that has not survived is Huntington Hall, which succumbed in 1991 to a tragic fire whose effects are still visible. Rockefeller Hall was where Carver once resided and is still an operating dormitory. Tompkins Hall is architecturally notable as it has no sustaining steel support. The original campus buildings are part of the Historic Site and stand as a testimony to all that has been accomplished at this unique educational institution.

For Further Information
  • Anderson, James. The Education of Blacks in the South, 1865-1935. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988. On the origin and development of historically black colleges.
  • Elliott, Lawrence. George Washington Carver. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1966. An introduction to Tuskegee’s great scientist.
  • Engs, Robert Francis. Educating the Disfranchised and Dispossessed. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1999. Focuses on the Hampton Institute, but also includes key information on Tuskegee.
  • Harlan, Louis. Booker T. Washington: The Wizard of Tuskegee, 1901-1915. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983. A good biographical work on Washington.
  • Murray, Albert. South to a Very Old Place. New York: Modern Library, 1985. Tuskegee’s second most famous literary alumnus after Ellison tours his alma mater.
  • Norrell, Robert J. Reaping The Whirlwind: The Civil Rights Movement in Tuskegee. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985. A history of not only the college but the town.
  • Washington, Booker T. Up from Slavery. New York: Dover, 1995. The great manifesto of Tuskegee’s founder.
Categories: History