Alabama: Tuskegee Institute National Historic Site

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Tuskegee Institute

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

In 1881, Tuskegee Institute in Alabama officially opened its doors to America’s former slaves. In time, the university would gain recognition for its superior training of African Americans in industrial trades that helped improve their economic conditions and way of life. Today, Tuskegee Institute National Historic Site is a symbol of African American achievement and a reminder of Booker T. Washington’s legacy in African American education and culture.

In 1880, as the Alabama State Senate election drew near, Senator W. F. Foster proposed a deal to Lewis Adams that would help make the former slave’s dream of establishing a school for his people a reality. According to their agreement, Adams would encourage African American voters in Mason County to support Foster’s re-election. In return, the State senator would influence the Alabama legislature to push a bill to institute in Tuskegee, a “Normal School for Colored Teachers.” When the former slave secured the senator’s seat the following year, Foster delivered on his promise, and with the help of member of the House of Representatives, Arthur L. Brooks, the legislature authorized the establishment of a teaching school for African Americans in Alabama.

During its first year, the school's outlook was unfavorable. Although the Alabama legislature provided $2,000 to cover teacher salaries, Tuskegee did not receive the necessary equipment for training its students, nor did it have buildings where students could attend classes. Instead they met with their teachers in a shanty located at the African American Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. Despite the school’s initial shortcomings, the students of Tuskegee were in good hands with their educators and in particular, their school principal.

With the assistance of George Campbell, the school commissioner and a former slave owner, Adams hired Booker Taliaferro Washington to lead the university. At Tuskegee, Washington used his training from the Hampton Normal and Agricultrual Institute to implement a program of industrial and vocational education to teach former slaves how “to live on the farm, off the farm.” He believed that by teaching students practical jobs and training those who worked on farms to master agricultural skills, the economic conditions for African Americans would improve. Washington also strove to teach his students to become self-sufficient by teaching them how to grow their own food, and how to make bricks, and with them, raise buildings that Tuskegee’s faculty designed. Eventually, Tuskegee’s campus grew from the small church shanty to 2,300 acres of farmland filled with buildings the students constructed. By teaching his students carpentry, bricklaying, printing, agriculture, and other trades, Booker T. Washington believed that Tuskegee’s students would build their campus and learn the dignity of hard work.

Washington recruited and trained George Washington Carver and and other distinguished educators. Carver, like Washington, was a former slave and an avid supporter of teaching practical education. Carver accepted Washington’s offer to head the school’s agriculture department and joined Tuskegee’s faculty in 1896. As a botanist and former professor of agriculture at Iowa State College, he began teaching students progressive agricultural methods that would help former plantation slaves become more efficient and productive. Carver taught farmers and their wives to master skills in agriculture and also about nutrition, home construction, food preservation, and hygiene.

In 1906, Carver and Washington, seeking to ameliorate the economic conditions of former slaves unable to attend Tuskegee, together initiated the Movable School. Carver was the architect behind the Jesup Wagon, which carried machinery and other supplies for training African American farmers at their homes. With the assistance of Carver, Washington was able to reach out to former slaves to them help find a place in society. Washington’s work at Tuskegee and his influence on African American culture eventually gained him wide recognition as a leader of his people. Distinguished white businessmen also believed in Washington and invested in the school. Renowned businessmen Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller were two of the school’s many benefactors who helped Tuskegee grow.

By the time Booker T. Washington died in 1915, Tuskegee had become an icon in African American history, growing from Washington’s first class of 30 students to a student body composed of 1,537 African Americans. After his death, Tuskegee--which offered students at the time the opportunity to learn 30 trades--would continue to expand its departments. In 1941, when the United States government barred African Americans from flying in the United States military, Tuskegee Institute began to train students in combat aviation. The aeronautical program, or “Tuskegee Experiment,” taught the distinguished Tuskegee Airmen to become pilots, navigators, and bombardiers. By the end of World War II, the Tuskegee Airmen were among the most respected fighters in America’s military. Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site at Moton Field on Tuskegee Institute in Alabama honors their heroic service during World War II.

Today, Tuskegee Institute continues its educational mission. At the Tuskegee Institute National Historic Site, visitors can walk the university grounds and enjoy the surviving buildings, including Washington’s home, the Oaks, which the first Tuskegee students constructed. This and other buildings designed by Robert R. Taylor, the first African American graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and built by Tuskegee’s students are reminders of Washington's practical approach to education. Tuskegee University students usually conduct the campus tours.

The Tuskegee Institute became part of the National Park Service's African American Civil Rights Network in 2022.

Tuskegee Institute National Historic Site, a unit of the National Park System, is located at 1212 W. Montgomery Rd. at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Tuskegee Institute National Historic Site is open daily from 9:00am to 4:30pm. The historic site is closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. There are no admission fees. For more information, visit the National Park Service Tuskegee Institute National Historic Site website or call 334-727-3200.

The Tuskegee Institute is a National Historic Landmark and many of its components have been documented by the National Park Service’s Historic American Buildings Survey, including: the Carver Museum, The Oaks, Grey Columns, and the Tuskegee Institute. You can also visit the National Park Service virtual museum exhibit: Legends of Tuskegee.

Last updated: February 6, 2024