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Tuskegee Black History Sites

Since moving to Atlanta and launching Noire Histoir in 2016 I’ve visited several Black History sites within Atlanta and neighboring states. Having journeyed to Montgomery, Alabama twice I passed Tuskegee along the way and made a mental note to visit at some point. I finally had a chance to visit in late summer and spent a Saturday walking the campus with a student guide, Nino.

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The tour lasted about an hour and covered the history of the university as well as brief overviews of particular buildings. Our tour guide was very personable and led us through the campus at a comfortable pace. After the tour, I continued walking around to take photos of the campus and then visited the George Washington Carver Museum.

The day that I visited was hot and given that much of the tour took place outside you could feel the heat beating down on you. Visit in the spring or fall when it’s cooler. Also, I visited during the weekend because it fit my schedule. But, if you can, try visiting on a weekday when the Legacy Museum is open. Some of the buildings are also closed when classes are not in session so call before you visit.

I skipped visiting The Oaks because I planned to return but wanted to get to the Tuskegee History Center before it closed. Unfortunately, the center turned out to be closed for the season so I continued to Butler Chapel A.M.A. and then the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site. Tuskegee isn’t a very long drive from Atlanta so I’ll try to return and see the inside of the sites that I missed.

Most of the sites open at 9AM or 10AM and close between 4-5PM. I would estimate that you’d need about one day or a little more than that to see everything. But I say that with the caveat that I’m from New York City and thus walk very fast and for long distances without needing a break. Tuskegee is about a 30-minute drive from Montgomery and 20-minutes from Auburn. I would recommend visiting over a long weekend, staying in Montgomery, and seeing the sites in both Montgomery and Tuskegee.

Tuskegee Institute National Historic Site

White Hall at Tuskegee University
White Hall at Tuskegee University

In 1880 local political and community leaders in Macon County, Alabama struck a deal that led to the establishment of a school that would bring renown to the area.

Lewis Adams was a former slave who had become a successful businessman and risen to prominence within the local Black community. While seeking reelection, an Alabama senator came up with a plan to use Adams’ local clout to get Black votes in Macon County. Adams agreed to the deal and in exchange arranged for the senator to provide funds for a Black teaching school.

With the help of George W. Campbell, a banker and former slave owner, Adams had arranged for the creation of the Tuskegee Normal School for Colored Teachers. While provisions had been made to pay teachers’ salaries no funds were available to establish the physical resources associated with schools. As a result, Tuskegee originated in a shanty on the grounds of a local church. Classes began on July 4, 1881, with 30 students many of whom were the children of former slaves.

Adams and Campbell also orchestrated the hiring of Booker T. Washington to serve as the first president of the school. Washington had also been born a slave and lived in poverty following emancipation but with determination was educated at Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute. As a student, Washington worked as a janitor to help cover his tuition and worked as a schoolteacher for a few years after graduation before joining Hampton’s staff. During his 35-year career at Tuskegee, Washington tirelessly raised funds for the school.

Inspired by his experience at Hampton, Washington sought to model Tuskegee after his alma mater. Tuskegee’s curriculum was designed around the idea of teaching former slaves trades and efficient agricultural practices to help them lift themselves out of poverty. A year after its founding, Tuskegee bought an abandoned plantation acquiring 100 acres of land. The purchase was partially funded by a personal loan from Hampton’s treasurer.

Early students at Tuskegee learned theory but were also called upon to put their education to practical use. Students learned how to make bricks and used them to construct the school’s buildings which were designed by the faculty. With a heavy focus on agriculture, students grew their food while also taking classes about cooking and nutrition. Unlike some other institutions of the time, female students learned “women’s trades” but also studied math and science.

George Washington Carver joined the faculty at Tuskegee as the head of the Agriculture Department in 1896. He used his knowledge of botany and science to research innovative and develop efficient agricultural practices. And besides teaching classes on the Tuskegee campus, he also helped to develop the Movable School and Jessup Wagon. These mobile educational resources allowed Carver to travel throughout rural Alabama to reach former slaves who could not travel to Tuskegee.

The intellectual contributions of founders and early staff combined with the physical labor of early students helped to establish the Tuskegee campus. With financial contributions from benefactors, the school was able to grow substantially within a few years. Tuskegee would eventually become an iconic site in Black history and one of the most prominent Historically Black Colleges & Universities (HBCU).

Tuskegee University is still a functioning school but a 50-acre section of the campus became a national historic site in 1974. Two of the campuses buildings, The Oaks and the George Washington Carver Museum are owned and managed by the National Park Service. The national park section of the campus is open to the public and student-led tours are available with reservations.

George W. Carver Museum

The George Washington Carver Museum at Tuskegee University
The George Washington Carver Museum at Tuskegee University

The George Washington Carver Museum was formed in 1938 at the request of the president of the Tuskegee Institute. Serving as the campus laundry since its construction in 1915, the building that would house the museum was remodeled in 1938. Much of the funding for the establishment of the museum was provided by Carver himself. The items on display were gathered from Carver’s lab, home, and personal art collection.

The museum focuses on both Carver’s life and career. A diorama of the property on which Carver spent his youth is on display. There are also childhood belongings and mementos that help to tell the story of Carver’s developing interest in agriculture as a young man. In its original iteration, the museum primarily focused on Carver’s botanical and landscape paintings as per his request. But the available artworks decreased in number following a devastating fire in 1947.

To adjust for the loss of items to the fire, the museum’s curator re-worked the exhibits on display. In its new format, the museum placed greater emphasis on Carver’s lab equipment, specimens, and scientific achievements. There are also several photographs as well as a school on wheels and Jesup Wagon that help to explain Carver’s dedication to sharing his agricultural knowledge with Black communities in rural parts of Alabama. I particularly liked the part of the exhibit that featured various vegetables preserved in jars. They were huge and looked like something from outer space.

The museum was one of the Tuskegee Institute buildings donated to the National Parks Service and serves as a welcome and information center. In addition to exhibits about Carver’s life and career, the museum also contains information about the founding and expansion of the Tuskegee Institute. There are photos from the early 1900s of guests visiting agricultural workshops and markets. An extensive exhibit details Tuskegee’s collaboration with NASA. As well as a small exhibit about the school’s role in helping to treat children with polio in the local Black community.

Legacy Museum

Legacy Museum at Tuskegee University
Legacy Museum at Tuskegee University

The Legacy Museum is housed within the National Center for Bioethics in Research and Health Care. The building had previously been used as a hospital and polio treatment center for the local community until it’s closure in 1987.

Established in 1997, the museum was formed after President Bill Clinton acknowledged and apologized on behalf of the U.S. government for the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. Included in the multi-part plan to memorialize the victims of the Study were provisions to create a museum in their honor. Instead of demolishing the hospital and building a new structure, efforts were made to preserve it’s historic exterior and craftsmanship by remodeling the building.

The museum is spread across three floors, one of which serves as storage for the museum’s pieces that are not on display. The top floor houses two permanent exhibits focused on Henrietta Lacks and HeLa cells as well as the Untreated Syphilis Study. The other floor houses rotating exhibits from Tuskegee’s collection and galleries for temporary exhibits.

The Oaks

Located on the campus of Tuskegee University, The Oaks served as the home and president’s office of Booker T. Washington. Funded by wealthy benefactors, the house was designed by the first Black accredited architect in America, Robert Robinson Taylor, and built by Tuskegee students.

Washington’s original on-campus home was relatively simple in comparison to its 7,800 square foot replacement. The Oaks was the first home in the county to have modern amenities such as electricity and indoor plumbing. The exterior was designed in the Queen Anne Revival style and the interior was filled with furniture and decorative pieces made by students and local artisans.

Construction of The Oaks began in 1899 and was completed in 1900 at which time Washington and his family moved in. This would remain Washington’s home until his death in 1915. In 1925, Tuskegee purchased the home from Washington’s family where ownership remained until 1974 when it came under the domain of the National Parks Service. Despite its age and historical significance, The Oaks is open to visitors. The building and its furnishings have remained mostly unchanged allowing for a peek back into the time of Booker T. Washington.

Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site

The Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site
The Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site

Established in 1998, the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site at Moton Field pays tribute to the Black airmen and airwomen who served in World War II. Before 1940, Black people were allowed to enlist in the military but were prohibited from taking on certain roles such as pilots. When the U.S. military decided to begin training Black pilots, it selected Tuskegee as the location for its Black flight school.

Construction of Moton Field took place between 1940 to 1942 and the site was developed through the collaboration of various entities. The military contracted the field to provide flight training for Black airmen. Financing was provided by the Julius Rosenwald Fund and a nearby established airfield oversaw the planning of the site. Various architects and engineers contributed to the actual design and construction of the airfield and its facilities.

The site in Tuskegee, Alabama was selected in part because of its proximity to the Tuskegee Institute. The school had a pre-existing civilian pilot training program and a wealth of engineering and technical staff and instructors due to its curriculum. Students and workers from the Tuskegee Institute helped to complete the field and its buildings.

Hangar One at The Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site
Hangar One at The Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site

Moton Field was only in use as a training facility for about four years. Out of the various facilities, only two hangars remain in addition to a few other buildings that serve as examples of the size and scale of structures. The two hangars house museum exhibits about the Tuskegee Airmen and the training facilities. Hangar One serves as the welcome center and primarily focuses on information about the flight training experience and the operation of the airfield. Hangar Two contains several exhibits and provides detailed information about the discrimination faced by the Tuskegee Airmen as well as the missions they were assigned.

Hangar Two at The Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site
Hangar Two at The Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site

Hangar Two was my favorite part of the site as it focused more on the story of the Tuskegee Airmen. I think people who are in the military or interested in flying might enjoy Hangar One more.

Butler Chapel AME Zion Church

Butler Chapel AME Zion Church
Butler Chapel AME Zion Church

Following emancipation, Black people began purchasing homes in an area of Tuskegee that would come to be known as Zion Hill. Before the Civil War, the majority of homes in the area had been owned by White families. As Black families began to move into the neighborhood the White families began to move out which resulted in the area becoming predominately Black.

The Rev. J.M. Butler began forming the Butler Chapel A.M.E. Zion Church congregation in 1865 and the first physical church was completed two years later. Over the next 20 years, the church underwent multiple renovations and expansions. Successive reverends oversaw not just the growth of the church but also made efforts to educate the local Black population. The Tuskegee Normal School for Colored Teachers (later the Tuskegee Institute) held its first classes in a shanty on the church’s property.

By the 1950s, the Black community in Zion Hill had owned property and formed a percentage of the voting population in Macon County for several decades. In 1957, a plot to decrease the political impact of Black voters in Tuskegee elections was put in place. The Alabama state legislature used gerrymandering to reconfigure the local political map. These changes placed the Tuskegee Institute and the majority of Black citizens outside the Tuskegee voting district.

In response, Tuskegee’s Black community joined together in their refusal to accept blatant tampering with the voting process. Beginning in June of the same year, weekly mass community meetings were held at Butler Chapel A.M.E. During these meetings plans were made to fight back against gerrymandering through boycotts and training activists for demonstrations.

Things remained unchanged until 1961 when the Supreme Court ruled against the state legislature. The court handed down the judgment that political districts could not be segmented to isolate or discriminate against minority groups. The state legislature had to reinstate the original district boundaries returning voting power to the local Black community.

Tuskegee History Center (Tuskegee Human and Civil Rights Multicultural Center)

The Tuskegee Human and Civil Rights Multicultural Center was founded in 1997 as a form of restitution to the individuals who were unknowingly enrolled in the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. The center was established by Fred Gray and Herman Shaw who had been personally involved with the study and its aftermath. Shaw was a survivor of the study and Gray represented the victims of the study in the lawsuit that obtained damages and the construction of a permanent memorial.

Over the years, the center has expanded its focus beyond the Syphilis Study. Permanent exhibits now include the history of African Americans, European Americans, and Native Americans. As a result, the museum is now known as the Tuskegee History Center and has served as the Macon County visitor center since 2002 and the Tuskegee visitor center since 2003. The expanded Tuskegee History Center has collaborated with the Smithsonian and U.S. Forest Service on both temporary and permanent exhibits related to local history.

Something to note is that the Tuskegee History Center is not open year-round. Or at least it was not at the time that I visited. I checked the Google Search listing for its hours and used Google Maps to navigate to its location. Only to find a sign that explained the center is only open during the summer. It seems that the Google Search listing has since been updated but I’d recommend calling first to confirm that they’ll be open during the time you intend to visit.

Bibliography

Tuskegee Institute National Historic Site

George W. Carver Museum

Tuskegee University Legacy Museum

The Oaks – Booker T. Washington Home

Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site

Butler Chapel AME Zion Church

Tuskegee History Center (Tuskegee Human and Civil Rights Multicultural Center)

More Content

The Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site
The Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site
Hangar One at The Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site
Hangar One at The Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site
Hangar Two at The Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site
Hangar Two at The Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site

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