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The Soul of Tuskegee

Originally Published in MotorHome Magazine

Two huge magnolias, trunks as thick as whiskey barrels and dark leaves glinting like jade,
stand like sentinels outside the elegant three-story brick manse in Tuskegee, Alabama, that
was once home to Booker T. Washington, one of the world’s most innovative educators. The
home, known as The Oaks — though the skeletal trees it was named for are far less
impressive this day than the towering magnolias — is as unusual as the man who had it
built. It’s an elegant home in a town full of once-fine antebellum homes, remnants of a
more prosperous era, Queen Anne-style with numerous galleries, gables and ornate brick
chimneys. The Oaks was constructed in 1899, 18 years after Washington had founded Tuskegee
Normal and Industrial Institute, which is across the road. He lived here until his death in
1915. But his persona isn’t contained only in the house. In the nearby museum — where he
shares honors with George Washington Carver — his views are expressed liberally among the
exhibits. Washington believed “We shall prosper in proportion as we learn to dignify and
glorify labor and put brains and skill into the common occupations of life.” It was this
conviction that prompted the educator — born a slave in 1856 on a small tobacco farm in
Virginia — to establish the school. Originally it occupied a one-room clapboard church
(African Methodist Episcopal Zion), but was soon expanded to include nearly two dozen
buildings, now the “historic district” and a National Historic Site run by the National
Park Service since 1974. The historic district is the heart of a major university with a
student body of 3,500. “Few schools,” wrote Washington, “teach what you ought to know to
make your way successfully in life.” Tuskegee Institute was designed to provide just that:
instruction and hands-on training in 30 trades, among them carpentry, printing, shoemaking,
saw-milling, brick-making, horticulture and agriculture. Students, many of them the sons
and daughters of former slaves, would graduate with a skill, prepared to earn a living in
the difficult post-Reconstruction era. Which brings us back to Washington’s remarkable
15-room home that was built — down to the shaping of the burgundy-colored bricks it’s made
from — by Tuskegee students, according to Shirley Baxter, a park ranger, who leads tours
at The Oaks and the historic district. Architect R.R. Taylor, a member of the Tuskegee
faculty, who had been the first black graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology, designed The Oaks (as well as most of the buildings in the historic district)
and supervised construction. The buildings of the historic district — stately structures
lining Campus Avenue — are surprisingly fine even for a university. Among them are White
Hall (built in 1910) with an imposing copper clock tower and red brick columns; Douglass
Hall (1904); Huntington Hall (1900); and Tompkins Hall (1910), each built by students. The
buildings are of red brick — made on the grounds — and white stone. White cornices are
poured concrete and columns are of plaster, but all are designed to closely resemble cut
stone. We walked around the campus an hour or so, stopping near the front gate to admire
the statue of Booker T. Washington. Dedicated in 1922, the bronze shows the educator
standing over a crouched black man believed to have once been a slave. He sits on an anvil,
next to a plow, holding an open book. “Booker T. Washington, 1856-1915” reads the carving
in the statue’s limestone base. “He lifted the veil of ignorance from his people and
pointed the way to progress through education and industry.” While we photographed the
statue, Patti Gullatte, a former Tuskegee student, now of Evansville, Indiana, happened by
and we struck up a conversation. Gullatte told us Rosa Parks had been born in Tuskegee; in
fact, the town is only about 40 miles east of Montgomery, where 50 years ago the bus
boycott in honor of Parks was a seminal moment in the Civil Rights Movement. From Gullatte
we also learned that Lionel Richie had gone to school here and had even formed his singing
group, the Commodores, while studying at Tuskegee. Then, nodding to the bronze statue, she
said we’d learn a lot about the “two most famous Tuskegee gentlemen” — Washington and
Carver — at the nearby George Washington Carver Museum, founded in 1938 and dedicated by
Henry Ford, a great admirer, three years later. Outside is a bronze bust of the
professor-scientist; inside is one of the finest museums you’ll find anywhere. A theater on
the lower level offers 30-minute videos about the lives of both men. However, their lives
are equally well-chronicled in hundreds of exhibits upstairs in the 6,000-square-foot
museum. As noted by the many displays, Booker Taliaferro Washington, 10 years old when the
Civil War ended, moved with his family to Malden, West Virginia, where he went to work in
the coal mines. He spent spare moments learning to read, and at 16 entered Hampton
Institute, working his way through as a janitor. He graduated with honors in 1875, and
after further study at Wayland Seminary in Washington, D.C., returned to Hampton in 1879 to
teach Native American students. His “great life’s work” began two years later, when he came
to Tuskegee, “pragmatic, optimistic and energetic, a man eminently in tune with his time,”
to establish the Institute. Due to Washington’s “extraordinary ability to work within the
system and maximize the possible,” Tuskegee flourished to an extent “only dreamed about”
when it opened with 30 students in the dilapidated church on July 4, 1881. Training
teachers was always a primary objective, though the school was better known for developing
skills to equip students for jobs in the trades and agriculture. Not only did students
“make and lay bricks,” an exhibit points out, they learned “progressive agricultural
methods” through growing their own food on the school’s farm. Also, even traditional
academic courses were geared toward helping students learn to solve practical problems.
This “industrial education,” Washington believed, would be the foundation on which “habits
of thrift, a love of work, ownership of property, and bank accounts” could grow. Further,
Tuskegee would be a “civilizing agent” in all aspects of a student’s life. Washington
insisted on cleanliness and high moral character for students, and no less for the faculty.
The school quickly outgrew the little church, and the year after it was founded it moved to
100 acres of abandoned farmland. By Washington’s death, Tuskegee had become internationally
famous; today, it includes more than 160 buildings on 268 acres. As mentioned, half the
exhibit space in this first-rate museum is devoted to George Washington Carver, who in 1896
had accepted Washington’s invitation to join Tuskegee’s faculty as head of the new
Department of Agriculture. Carver, born a slave just before the end of the Civil War and
orphaned as a young child, had worked his way through school, eventually earning a master’s
degree in agriculture from Iowa Agricultural College (later Iowa State University). He was
director of research in botany and bacteriology at the school, well on the way to a
promising scientific career, when Washington’s invitation came — and he chose a less
certain future at Tuskegee. Scientist Carver was a professor, an exhibit notes, who
“encouraged students to figure things out for themselves.” His 47 years’ research at the
school was based on finding solutions to agricultural problems faced by poor Southern
farmers. Seeking a way to improve soil depleted by cotton, Carver urged growers to raise
peanuts, which revitalized the earth. Then, answering the question of what to do with all
the peanuts, he came up with more than 300 widely varied uses for the lowly legume, from
coffee and sweet pickles, tapioca and after-dinner mints, to face cream and axle grease,
glue and insecticide. Carver wrote more than 40 research bulletins on such subjects as
raising hogs, growing tomatoes and curing meat in hot weather; he conducted demonstrations
at area farmhouses; and he was an unpaid consultant to growers about cultivation and
treatment of plant diseases. Carver was also an accomplished musician — he played the
fiddle, guitar and piano, and often gave recitals to raise money for Tuskegee — and
painter. Although many of his paintings were lost in a fire, about 70 remain, several of
which are displayed at the museum. Examples of Carver’s exquisite needlework are also here,
as are specimens from his collection of minerals. Carver died in 1943 still earning the
same salary, at his own request ($1,500 a year) that Washington had offered him in 1896.
However slight your knowledge of Washington and Carver when you enter this first-rate
museum, you’ll leave with deep admiration and respect, even affection for these remarkable
gentlemen. You’ll also feel you knew them well — and wish you really had.

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