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Amid Alabama Farm Fields, a Citadel of Black Learning Shines

  • Ted Landphair

White Hall, one of many Tuskegee University buildings constructed by the hands of students, opened in 1909. Its clock tower is a campus landmark.

White Hall, one of many Tuskegee University buildings constructed by the hands of students, opened in 1909. Its clock tower is a campus landmark.

Aerospace, bioethics programs burnish Tuskegee University's luster

In 1881, a 25-year-old former slave from Virginia used a $2,000 gift to open a one-room teacher-training school in one of the poorest rural counties in the southern state of Alabama. This man and his school, that began in a church basement, would become American legends.

The man was Booker T. Washington, who at the turn of the 20th Century succeeded another former slave, the fiery orator Frederick Douglass, as the recognized voice of black America. The school, which at first had no money for land or buildings, grew into the world-renowned Tuskegee Institute, a college for those whom no one else wanted to educate: African Americans in the backwoods of what was then the rigidly segregated South.

Proud history

Benjamin Payton is just the fifth president of what is now Tuskegee University. He says Washington was a great compromiser, which brought him scorn from confrontational black leaders but attracted moral and financial support from powerful whites.

"He did it at a time when racial conflict was at its height, when terrorism was at its height, when blacks were routinely taken as objects of play and murder," Payton says. "Washington took the position that no matter what other people think of you, the question is what you think of yourself and what you're going to do with the talents that have been embodied in you." Tuskegee Institute President Booker T. Washington works at his desk in a photo taken around 1905.

Tuskegee Institute President Booker T. Washington works at his desk in a photo taken around 1905.

In his most famous speech, at a cotton exposition in 1895 in Atlanta, Washington implored the agrarian South, which was beginning to industrialize, to put America's 4 million former slaves to work. "Let down your buckets where you are," he said. "You'll find fresh water...a major source of strength for the country."

Washington certainly put his Tuskegee students to work. They dug the clay, built the kilns, fired the bricks, and themselves constructed campus buildings - including Washington's own stately home - that stand to this day.

And Washington hired away another onetime slave, a pioneer botanist and inventor working in the Midwest state of Iowa, who would join him in the pantheon of African-American giants. His name was George Washington Carver.

Peanut miracles

"When he first came into the South, he noticed how the farmers' crops were not producing a lot and that all the nutrients were sucked out of the soil," notes Shirley Baxter, a U.S. National Park Service ranger at the George Washington Carver National Historic site on the Tuskegee campus.

"He knew that if they planted legumes, if they rotated their crops, that that was really going to help them as a people. And when they started growing peanuts, they asked him 'What do we do with them?' And that's when he went into the lab." George Washington Carver oversees the work of some of his botany students.

George Washington Carver oversees the work of some of his botany students.

There, Carver performed miracles with the humble peanut in particular. He showed poor, black sharecroppers how to make a decent living turning peanuts into more than 300 products, including peanut butter, shampoo, wood stains and glue.

In the 1940s, black polio sufferers flocked to Tuskegee from across the South to get Carver's free, personal massages using peanut oil, which he and they believed was a miracle curative.

"Come to find out, it wasn't the peanut oil," Ranger Baxter reports. "It was the massages."

Carver, who had told Tuskegee's President Washington that he'd come for a couple of years in order to help fellow blacks, would stay at the institute for 47 years, right up to his death in 1943.

Carver, who became so immersed in his work that he routinely forgot to cash his modest paychecks, never married. "The reason, he always said, was that he would get up at 4 o'clock in the morning and go out on his daily hikes," Baxter says.

"And he would come back with mud on his shoes, and he said, 'No woman would ever put up with that.'...He was probably right."

Together, George Washington Carver and Booker T. Washington taught not just Tuskegee students, but also poor Alabama farmers who had no time, money or education to go to college. The two men took their books and plants and test tubes out into the country in a farm wagon, or what they called their "movable school."

Tuskegee airmen

Tuskegee Institute would one day gain international fame for a training program on the campus airfield during World War II in the 1940s. Its graduates - black fighter pilots and gunners - served with distinction, escorting U.S. bombers over Europe and Africa. The Tuskegee airmen, black fighter pilots and gunners, served with distinction, escorting US bombers over Europe and Africa.

The Tuskegee airmen, black fighter pilots and gunners, served with distinction, escorting US bombers over Europe and Africa.

Carla Graves, a park guide at the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site in the hangar at the airfield where they trained, says the U.S. president's wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, visited and met the head flight trainer, Charles "Chief" Anderson.

"Can Negroes really fly airplanes?" she asked Anderson.

"Certainly we can," he replied, and Mrs. Roosevelt shocked her security detail by accepting a ride with him in his biplane.

"Whatever she set out to do, she did it," Graves says."So she took that ride with Chief. And when they got back, she said, 'You can fly, all right.' So this provided a great boost to African Americans in aviation."

Of the 450 Tuskegee Airmen who fought abroad, 66 died in combat, and 33 crashed and were captured. Half a century later, in 2007, U.S. President George Bush presented survivors - and other Tuskegee Airmen posthumously - with a Congressional Gold Medal for their service. Tuskegee Airmen William Campbell and Thurston Gaines are pictured in Italy in 1945.

Tuskegee Airmen William Campbell and Thurston Gaines are pictured in Italy in 1945.

By that time, Tuskegee University had burst beyond its historic role as a rural school for teachers, veterinarians, agronomists, and business executives. Within its sprawling campus today, one finds the nation's only aerospace-science program at a historically black college, as well as a renowned center for bioethics in research and health.

The latter was established following the discovery of a 40-year-long study by the U.S. Public Health Service in which 399 mostly illiterate black men in the county that includes Tuskegee, infected with the venereal disease syphilis, were not told about it or treated with penicillin.

Modern times

University president Payton says the shock that many people display when they come to the modern Tuskegee campus amuses him.

"I'm not sure what they expected to find," he says. "Chicken coops and pigpens tended by folk with baggy trousers and suspenders? This statue, titled, “Lifting the Veil,” is a centerpiece of the Tuskegee campus. It depicts Booker T. Washington lifting the veil of ignorance from a former slave.

This statue, titled, “Lifting the Veil,” is a centerpiece of the Tuskegee campus. It depicts Booker T. Washington lifting the veil of ignorance from a former slave.

"Clearly they do not come here with the expectation that they will find programs reaching 50 or more sciences and the liberal arts and engineering, biomedicine, veterinary medicine, nursing - the cutting-edge disciplines that relate to research on human beings and the new challenges those very successes present."

Asked to assess the state of black America as he prepares to retire after 29 years on the job, Payton says he rejoices that ever-increasing numbers of African Americans go to, and thrive in, college. But he says this achievement is more than offset by a high-school drop-out rate among African Americans of more than 50 percent.

"We need to produce young men and women who care about themselves - the kind of persons who have some sense of what it means to be an individual with dignity, who respect others, who know that just as you want to be respected, we treat other people as we want to be treated," Payton says. "We made so much progress through the advancement of science and technology. But ethically and morally, we are in a bad way."

Outside Payton's window stands a statue of his famous predecessor, Booker T. Washington, pulling a shroud from the face of a former slave kneeling next to him. "He lifted the veil of ignorance from his people," an inscription reads, "and pointed the way to progress through education and industry."

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