Happy Founder’s Day Tuskegee University

Today’s blog was written by Kaitlin Rogers, Archives Technician at the National Archives at College Park, Maryland.

Knowledge, Leadership, Service

Harmon Foundation Collection: Tuskegee Institute, Booker T. Washington Monument (NAID 26174885)

On July 4th, 1881, Booker T. Washington opened the Tuskegee Normal School for Colored Teachers in Tuskegee, Alabama’s African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. Five months earlier, the Alabama State legislature had passed a bill to “establish a Normal School for colored teachers at Tuskegee”. The bill granted $2,000 of state funding annually and appointed three commissioners from the Tuskegee community to help start the school. The bill had been sponsored by politician Wilbur R. Foster, who had promised Tuskegee’s Black community that he would help establish a normal school in the town in exchange for their votes. Three prominent Tuskegee leaders were placed on the commission: Lewis Adams, Thomas B. Dryer, and M.B. Swanson who was later replaced by George Washington Campbell. Having heard of the success of Virginia’s Hampton Institute, Campbell wrote to the headmaster, General Samuel Chapman Armstrong, asking if he could spare any instructors for Tuskegee’s Normal School. General Armstrong recommended Booker T. Washington, who was currently teaching at Hampton and had formerly been a student there. 1 Washington accepted the position and moved to Tuskegee, eager to open the school as quickly as possible.

RG 79 Alabama NHL Tuskegee Institute (NAID 77835653)

Washington’s education at the Hampton Institute molded his philosophies of racial uplift considerably, and he brought these ideas to Tuskegee. During his time as a student at Hampton, he completed academic curriculum, participated in the school’s manual labor system, and adhered to Hampton’s policies for social discipline. General Armstrong believed that African Americans should learn to labor with dignity in the South, and that Black school teachers played a key role in indoctrinating this work ethic of self-sufficiency, this notion was commonly known as the “Hampton Ideal”2. As historian August Meier has noted, industrial education for southern Blacks was a sort of “compromise” that earned goodwill from the Confederate south that wanted cheap labor, the philanthropic interests in the antislavery north, and the newly free Black citizen seeking economic independence.3 However, many contemporary Black leaders, most famously WEB Du Bois, disagreed with the notion of industrial education for African Americans, arguing that it tied the formerly enslaved to their previous labor. They instead lobbied for traditional higher education and professional schools for Black Americans.

Even in the context of this heated debate over Black education, Tuskegee proved to be a formidable force in the South, and the nation as a whole. Soon after opening, a nearby farm was purchased and the school was relocated there. Students worked the land as a part of their education and helped construct school buildings. Booker T. Washington aimed to make the school financially independent from the state of Alabama, so it could continue to run if the funding was not always reallocated. He went on a series of fundraising trips to the North and was able to pay for the property in full by April of 1882, and later expand the campus.4 In 1892, the Alabama state legislature changed the name of the school to the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute and granted total independence from the state.5 A team of instructors joined Washington as the school expanded. George Washington Carver joined the faculty in 1896, as the Director of Agriculture and made Tuskegee his research home over his long and notable career as an agricultural scientist.6

After Booker T. Washington passed away in 1915, Robert R. Moton succeeded him as principal. Moton sought to diverge from Washington’s emphasis on industrial education and established a university curriculum at the school in 1927.7 The school’s name was changed again to the Tuskegee Institute in 1937. And in the 1940s, under the leadership of Dr. Frederick D. Patterson, a graduate program was established at Tuskegee along with the school of veterinary medicine and the Tuskegee Army Airfield. During World War II, many Black pilots trained at the airfield, bringing national recognition to Tuskegee’s Airmen.8

An F-4C PLhantom II aircraft stands in front of the Gen. Daniel “Chappie” James Center for Aerospace Science and Health Education at Tuskegee Airmen’s Plaza, Tuskegee University. The Phantom is the last aircraft flown by James, who was the nation’s first black four-star Air Force general. (NAID 6472824)

In 1985 the school’s name was changed to Tuskegee University, an institution of higher education that is still renowned today. Tuskegee is ranked fourth by the US News & World Report for Historically Black Colleges and Universities.9 Tuskegee currently enrolls 2,100 undergraduate students and 500 graduate and professional students each year. They continue to have a STEM edge, being the only HBCU offering a Veterinary Medicine doctoral degree and producing the highest number of Black aerospace engineers in the nation.10 Several notable alumni attended Tuskegee University who had successful careers in politics, activism, education, arts & entertainment, and business. A select few of the famous alumni include: Chokwe Antar Lumumba, Amelia Boynton Robinson, Ralph Ellison, Lonnie Johnson, Tom Joyner, Claude McKay, Marilyn Mosby, Lionel Richie, Betty Shabazz, Danielle Spencer, and Keenen Ivory Wayans. Tuskegee University became a national historic site in 1974, and it continues to uphold the strong academic tradition established by its founders to this day.

Valerie Jarrett @vj44 Amelia Boynton Robinson (103) helped lead the civil rights movement in Selma. Here she is @TuskegeeUniv commencement. pic.twitter.com/jN9UHAUEQv (NAID 219775313)

The National Archives and the Presidential Libraries hold several documents, photographs, moving images, and sound recordings on Tuskegee University. Below are a few selections:

  • RG 79 Alabama NHL Tuskegee Institute (NAID 77835653)
  • RG 111, Photographs of American Military Activities (NAID86724128)
  • RG 111, Photographs of American Military Activities (NAID86724136)
  • Collection MT, Outtakes from ‘March of Time’ Newsreels (NAID140135952)
  • RG 241, Selected Patent Files (NAID2524941)
  • Collection BHO-ERO, Valerie Jarett’s Twitter Posts (NAID 219775313)

Additional information about Tuskegee University can be found on the Rediscovering Black History Blog. Below are a few selections:

  1. Louis R. Harlan. Booker T. Washington: The Making of a Black Leader, 1856-1901 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975), p. 109-134. ↩︎
  2.  James D. Anderson, The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988,) p. 35-70. ↩︎
  3. August Meier, Negro Thought in America, 1880-1915: Racial Ideologies in the Age of Booker T. Washington (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1963). For further understanding of the debate surrounding Black education and racial uplift after reconstruction, see also chapter 10 of George M. Fredrickson, The Black Image in the White Mind: The Debate on Afro-American Character and Destiny, 1817-1914 (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1971). ↩︎
  4. Harlan, 123-134. ↩︎
  5. “Tuskegee Institute”, Oxford African American Studies Center, Accessed 6/25/2024, Tuskegee Institute | Oxford African American Studies Center. “History of Tuskegee University”, History and Mission, Tuskegee University, Accessed 6/25/2024, https://www.tuskegee.edu/about-us/history-and-mission. ↩︎
  6. Harlan, 276-277. ↩︎
  7. “Tuskegee Institute”, Oxford African American Studies Center, Accessed 6/25/2024, Tuskegee Institute | Oxford African American Studies Center. ↩︎
  8. “Tuskegee Institute”, Oxford African American Studies Center, Accessed 6/25/2024, Tuskegee Institute | Oxford African American Studies Center. ↩︎
  9. “Tuskegee University Rankings”, US News & World Report, Accessed 6/25/2024, https://www.usnews.com/best-colleges/tuskegee-university-1050/overall-rankings. ↩︎
  10.  Bobby L. Lovett covers the HBCU emphasis on STEM degrees in chapter 8 of his book America’s Historically Black Colleges & Universities: A Narrative History, 1837-2009 (Macon: Mercer University Press, 2015); “Quick Facts”, Discover TU, Tuskegee University, Accessed 6/25/2024, https://www.tuskegee.edu/discover-tu/why-choose-tu/quick-facts. ↩︎

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