Tuskegee Institute: A Roll-Call of Self-Made Men

Nathan Richardson as Frederick Douglass

Please allow me to welcome guest writer Nathan Richardson. Mr. Richardson is a poet, author, and Frederick Douglass historian based out of Suffolk, Virginia. Among his many other accomplishments, Richardson is in his 7th year with the Frederick Douglass Speaking Tour, in which he delivers a compelling portrayal of the former slave, writer, orator and abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, at venues across the U.S. This engaging living history series has produced film credits with the National Park Service and with Alabama Public Television. To book Mr. Richardson for a Frederick Douglass presentation, visit his Website at SCPublishing. –Ria Nicholas

Frederick Douglass At Tuskegee

By Nathan Richardson

Frederick Douglass

On May 26, 1892, Frederick Douglass gave the commencement address at Tuskegee Institute. Thousands of people arrived on campus to hear him speak, some coming from as far away as thirty or forty miles. Douglass did not disappoint his audience. At 74 years old, he still had “all the eloquence, spirit and humor of youth,” a reporter noted, and the speech he delivered was an old crowd-pleaser called “Self-Made Men.”

Self-made men … are the men who owe little or nothing to birth, relationship, friendly surroundings; to wealth inherited or to early approved means of education; who are what they are, without the aid of any of the favoring conditions by which other men usually rise in the world and achieve great results.

— Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass as a young man

Douglass’s address at Tuskegee was the capstone for nine days of speaking engagements throughout the South. He had already visited most (if not all) of the African-American schools for higher education in Knoxville, Nashville, Chattanooga, and Atlanta. At Fisk University, Douglass brought the students and faculty to tears when he described how, during his enslaved youth, “he fought with the dogs for crumbs to satisfy his hunger, and learned to write by scratching in the sand.” Douglass himself was “overcome with emotion” while reflecting on his past.

Although Douglass’s experiences in bondage were more than fifty years behind him, the memories were still painful. And Douglass was finding that, even though he was a prominent public figure and former federal official, he was still subject to racial oppression. On his way through Tennessee, he had been forced to sit in a segregated train car where luggage was stored.

Image courtesy the Library of Congress

Without a doubt, Douglass was indignant over such treatment, but, in this instance, he appears not to have protested. It could have cost him his life. Just two months before the trip, a Tennessee newspaper had warned that Douglass might be lynched if he traveled through the state. His offense? He had recently criticized the lawlessness of white mobs who perpetrated racial violence.

Considering the threat on his life, it is remarkable that Douglass kept his speaking engagements in the South at all. While traveling, his train even reportedly crossed a bridge near Manchester, Tennessee, where the body of Charles Everett, a lynching victim, still hung. Frederick Douglass was brave. — The End

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By Ria Nicholas

Things to See and Do In Tuskegee

The Oaks

The Oaks

“The Oaks” is the elegant home of Tuskegee Institute’s first principal and founder, Booker T. Washington. Washington was born into slavery in Virginia in 1856. After emancipation, he went to work as a ‘domestic’ for a West Virginia family, and later attended night school while working in the salt furnaces there. Appreciating the importance of education, he enrolled in the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Hampton, Virginia in 1872.

Booker T. Washington

At the age of 25, Washington was recruited to serve as principal of “Tuskegee Normal School for colored teachers.” There were no school buildings when he arrived, so he held classes at a church. The following year, a permanent building, designed by African-American instructors and built by African-American students, was erected. Washington’s mission was to attract the best and brightest Black educators to Tuskegee to provide newly-emancipated Black students with a practical education that would lead to independence and self-sufficiency. Known for his keen intellect, Washington was a talented organizer, fund-raiser, author and orator, and became an informal advisor to presidents McKinley, Teddy Roosevelt, and Taft.

The Oaks is part of the Tuskegee Institute National Historic Site. Free 45-minute tours of The Oaks are typically available on Tuesdays through Saturdays at 9:30 AM, 10:30 AM, 1:30 PM, 2:30 PM, and 3:30 PM. You must join a tour to see the inside of the house. Get an up-to-date schedule on the National Park Service’s Things to Do web page. The Oaks is located at 905 W Montgomery Rd, Tuskegee, AL 36083.

George Washington Carver Museum

The initial emphasis of Booker T. Washington’s school at Tuskegee was on industrial and agricultural training, since most freed slaves had experience in farming and blue collar work. To that end, Washington hired George Washington Carver, an educator and botanist from Iowa State College, to head the school’s Agriculture Department in 1896.

George Washington Carver

Carver had also been born into slavery in the early 1860s, in Missouri. While he was an infant, George, his mother, and his sister were kidnapped by slave raiders. His owner, Moses Carver, was able to retrieve only young George. Moses Carver and his wife raised George and his brother as their own. Because George Washington Carver was a sickly child, he was unable to fully participate in chores and spent much of his childhood collecting and experimenting with rocks, soil, and plants. Recognizing his bright and curious mind, his step parents sent him to school to earn the equivalent of a high school education in 1877. By 1896 he had earned his masters degree in biology at Iowa State University, where he joined the faculty as its first Black member.

It was from here that Booker T. Washington hired him. During his lifetime, Carver was not only an educator, but also a prolific inventor, who created more than 300 products from peanuts alone (although not peanut butter) and many more from other plants . Carver also revolutionized agricultural practices, introducing crop rotation to Southern farms to restore the soil. Carver remained at Tuskegee for 47 years.

“All mankind are the beneficiaries of his discoveries in the field of agricultural chemistry. The things which he achieved in the face of early handicaps will for all time afford an inspiring example to youth everywhere.”

— Franklin D. Roosevelt

The George Washington Carver Museum is also part of the Tuskegee Institute National Historic Site. The Museum and Visitor Center are open Monday through Saturday from 9 AM to 4:30 PM. They are closed on Sundays, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. The Museum is located near The Oaks, at Campus Rd, Tuskegee, AL 36088.

George Washington Carver Museum; image courtesy Jessamyn (Creative Commons).

Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site / Moton Field

Built between 1940 and 1942, Moton Field was the only primary flight facility for African-American pilot candidates in the U.S. Army Air Corps (precursor of the Air Force) during World War II. Tuskegee Institute was the civilian contractor that supplied the facilities: quarters, mess hall, hangers, offices, etc. After cadets completed their primary flight training at Moton Field, they transferred to Tuskegee Army Air Field (TAAF), a segregated facility, to complete their training with the Army Air Corps.

First Tuskegee Class

The impetus was a “military experiment” to ascertain if African Americans had the mental and physical ability and courage to operate military aircraft and serve in leadership positions. The result was the legendary Tuskegee Airmen. The first Black military aviators in the U.S. Army Air Corps (AAC), the Tuskegee Airmen flew more than 15,000 individual sorties in Europe and North Africa during World War II, earning more than 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses. The exceptional record of the Tuskegee Airmen ultimately led to the desegregation of the military by Harry S. Truman and served as a springboard for the modern Civil Rights Movement.

The Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site is located at 1616 Chappie James Avenue and is open Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Please check for updates in their schedule.

Tuskegee Airmen

Tuskegee, Alabama is only one of many stops along the Civil Rights Trail.

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