|Booker T. Washington surrounded by Tuskegee Institute donors on a tour of the campus. That's Andrew Carnegie on his left.|
When I was cracking open an American history text in Cheyenne about 1965 African-Americans were covered in generous page or so in the 400 page tome. The contents can be summed up thusly—Harriet Tubman, Fredrick Douglas good for a short paragraph each; Lincoln frees the slaves and everyone is happy; uppity Blacks and carpetbaggers wreck horrible vengeance on the defeated South; Booker T. Washington establishes the Tuskegee Institute and one of his teachers, George Washington Carver invents a thousand things to do with the peanut and save the economy of Georgia. The latter two, credits to their race, got by far the most ink and even their pictures in the book.
Washington was the Black man Whites loved, and the one they anointed as the spokesman for the race. And why not. In order to grow his school in the hostile soil of the post-reconstruction South, Washington made a series of compromises, not the least of which was refusing to advance arguments for the restoration of black suffrage or challenging White authority in any way. Instead, advocated that Blacks educate themselves—particularly in useful pursuits like agriculture and teaching—work hard, elevate their moral behavior, and prove themselves to Whites for years before pressing for expanded rights.
It was a song even Southern Democrats yearned to hear from Black folks, and it enabled Washington to gather financial support and endowments from some of America’s wealthiest men to grow his school into a major institution in just a few years.
Of course his consistent conservatism would eventually draw the scorn of more aggressive Black leaders like W. E. B Du Bois, author of The Soul of Black Folks and a founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). That criticism would be echoed by new generations of Black activists and the scholars who emerged from the Black Studies departments of American Universities since the 1960’s.
It was on September 19, 1881 that a small Normal School for Colored Teachers opened its doors—or door, it only occupied one run-down shack—to students for the first time in Tuskegee, Alabama.
The previous year a local Macon County Black political leader, Lewis Adams, agreed to abandon his traditional allegiance to the Republican Party and support two White Democratic candidates for the Alabama legislature. It was one of the last elections in which Blacks, supported by the continued presence of Federal troops under Reconstruction were able to vote in substantial numbers. Thanks to the re-capture of state and local governments by Democrats, the era of Jim Crow was about to strip Blacks of almost all of their Civil Rights.
Whatever reason Adams had for “selling out” to the Democrats, he was rewarded with a $2000 appropriation to found a new Normal School. Samuel Armstrong, President of Virginia’s Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, the successful model for the new school, was asked to recommend a principal with the full expectation that the candidate would be White. Instead, Armstrong recommended a 25 year old Black graduate of Hampton—Booker T. Washington.
Washington had been born a slave in Hales Ford, Virginia April 5, 1856. Like many plantations children, his father was white, but never identified. He was just nine years old when the Civil War ended. After emancipation his mother Jane resettled in West Virginia where she at last could legally marry her long time husband a freedman Washington Ferguson. The boy took his step-father’s first name for his last.
As a youth he worked in local coal mines and in a salt furnace saving a small amount of money to travel to Hampton Institute for an education. He worked his way through that school and then enrolled in Wayland Seminary, a Baptist theological school, in 1876. He abandoned the pursuit of the ministry and returned to Hampton, where he had been an outstanding student to teach.
July 4, 1881 is usually sited as the foundation date for the new school. But classed did not actually begin until September. Washington took the reins of a school with just enough money to pay him and a couple of instructors for one year. The legislative grant had not covered either land or buildings. The ramshackle old church that the founders had secured was obviously unsuitable for a lasting institution.
Washington showed the skillful administrative and fundraising abilities that marked his career by securing a loan from the White treasurer of the Hampton Institute to buy a plantation on the outside of town. He opened the school there in 1882.
By 1888, just seven short years after moving to the plantation location, the Tuskegee Institute was famous. It encompassed nearly a dozen buildings on over 540 acres had more than 400 students enrolled. How did Washington accomplish this astonishing transformation?”
Two ways. First, he was a relentless fund raiser and not afraid to directly approach the richest and most influential men in the nation for support. He knew just what to say to them to tug at what charitable heartstrings they might have will assuaging any fear that they may be abetting a Black uprising. Eventually his list of donors grew to include steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, and Central Pacific Railway tycoon Collis Huntington. He enjoyed political support and protection both from Alabama White Democrats and national Republicans like William McKinley, and Theodore Roosevelt, who would famously invite him for dinner at the White House.
Secondly was the labor of his students. Students were expected to work, and work hard, in exchange for their education. It both fit in with Washington’s philosophy that work was ennobling and provided him the hands that built his buildings, tended the farm that produced the food that was eaten, engaged in numerous crafts, cooked and served, cleaned and catered to his every whim.
Students were roused from their beds at 5:30 and kept running between classes, chores, study time, and prayer until 9:30 at night. Except for the Sabbath, which was expected to be devoted to services, Bible reading, and reflection, there was no free time, no recreation. Washington feared that idle hours would tempt his students into crap games, drinking, chasing women, and general debauchery which would ruin them, and worse, bring disgrace upon the school and the race.
Despite the rigorous demands, ambitious students from across the South got to Tuskegee any way they could get there. They found dedicated and gifted teachers like Olivia Davidson, the vice-principal who became Washington’s second wife, and Adella Hunt-Logan an English teacher and school librarian who also became a leading Black women’s suffragist. Programs in agriculture and the “useful manual arts” prepared them for life in the south.
Within a few years graduates were spreading over the South, improving Negro schools and founding new ones. Agricultural extension activities brought modern farming techniques to Blacks who were able to hold on to their land and avoid being knocked back down to the semi-slavery of share cropping.
By 1890 the White Democratic counter-revolution was complete across the South. Blacks were once again disenfranchised. Jim Crow and the reign of terror of the lynch mob crushed Black hopes and expectations. In less than ten years from its founding, the social climate that had given birth to the school changed. Former Southern White allies, who had seen the school as a balance against more threatening Black advancement, now were turning on it and regarding it with suspicion.
Washington was keenly alert to the dangers. He took the opportunity provided by an invitation to give a speech at the opening of the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta to put forward the much publicized Atlanta Compromise in which he, on behalf of Southern Black leadership pledged explicitly to accept White rule, refrain from agitation on the franchise and other issues in exchange for a White guarantee to support Black education and some degree of fairness before the law.
The unwritten compromise—Washington preferred the term accommodation—secured the safety and future of the Tuskegee Institutes, although white promises of fair treatment in the courts proved completely illusionary. It also generated even more generous donations from Northern industrialists and benefactors which now expanded to include John D. Rockefeller, Henry Huttleston Rogers, George Eastman, and Elizabeth Milbank Anderson.
Another rich man, Julius Rosenwald of Sears, Roebuck and Company became a leading member of the Tuskegee Board and funded a project which would build 500 schools in rural Black communities which would be designed by Tuskegee architects, built by student labor, and staffed by its trained graduates.
Despite these accomplishment, Washington’s “meek submission to White rule” drew the scorn of a new generation of Black leaders, including Du Bois, many of them highly educated and based in the North.
Washington spent more and more of his time on speaking tours and on fund raising, but kept a close grip on the management of the school as principal. The work load was visibly taking a toll on his health. On November 14, 1915 Washington died at the school of congestive heart failure.
He left behind a sprawling, modern campus, a wide extension system, and an endowment of over $1.5 million. He was laid to rest on the campus.
His school endured, even thrived. It adapted over the years to new demands, adding departments preparing its students in many new areas. It is now Tuskegee University. The school famously became the training site for the Tuskegee Airmen, the Black World War II fighter pilots who became legendary over the skies of Europe.
It has also had its troubled moments, most infamously as the home of the Syphilis Study, conducted for the U.S. Public Health Service from 1932–1972 in which 399 poor and mostly illiterate African American sharecroppers became part of a study on non-treating and natural history of syphilis. While some participants received treatment, a control group was not and the disease was allowed to run its fatal course over many years causing both needless suffer and risking the continued infection on new victims. After the study was revealed President Bill Clinton issued a formal apology on behalf of the nation.
But just as Washington would have, the University used the case to raise money to open a new National Center for Bioethics in Research and Health Care, devoted to “engaging the sciences, humanities, law and religious faiths in the exploration of the core moral issues which underlie research and medical treatment of African Americans and other underserved people.”
Today Tuskegee University is one of the flagship schools served by the United Negro College Fund and still one of top historically Black universities in the country. There are more than 4000 students in 35 bachelor’s degree programs, 12 master’s degree programs, a 5-year accredited professional degree program in architecture, 2 doctoral degree programs, and the Doctor of Veterinary Medicine program.
The campus, including to original building, Washington’s home The Oaks, the graves of Washington and George Washington Carver and the Carver Museum are a National Historic Site. Moton Field, home of the Tuskegee Airmen, is a second designated Historic Site.
Graduates of the Institute and University have included such notables as Amelia Boynton Robinson, Civil Rights leader and the first Black woman to run for office in Alabama; Lionel Richie and the rest of The Commodores; author Ralph Ellison; Air Force General “Chappie” James, the first Black to reach four star rank in the armed services; super star radio host Tom Joyner; former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin; Dr. Ptolemy A. Reid, former Prime Minister of Guyana; Betty Shabazz, activist and widow of Malcolm X; and actor, comedian, and producer Keenan Ivory Wayans.