Black History Month: “Up From Slavery”

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Booker T. Washington’s 1901 autobiography “Up From Slavery” was a best-seller and traced the educators rise from slavery, through the mines, to his education and, eventually, the establishment of the Tuskegee Institute.

Here’s an excerpt from the book (which can be found here and here):

ONE day, while at work in the coal-mine, I happened to overhear two miners talking about a great school for coloured people somewhere in Virginia. This was the first time that I had ever heard anything about any kind of school or college that was more pretentious than the little coloured school in our town.

In the darkness of the mine I noiselessly crept as close as I could to the two men who were talking. I heard one tell the other that not only was the school established for the members of my race, but that opportunities were provided by which poor but worthy students could work out all or a part of the cost of board, and at the same time be taught some trade or industry.

As they went on describing the school, it seemed to me that it must be the greatest place on earth, and not even Heaven presented more attractions for me at that time than did the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Virginia, about which these men were talking. I resolved at once to go to that school, although I had no idea where it was, or how many miles away, or how I was going to reach it; I remembered only that I was on fire constantly with one ambition, and that was to go to Hampton. This thought was with me day and night.

The previous authors and writings featured on this blog:
“The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano”
Gwendolyn Brooks
August Wilson
“Our Nig” by Harriet Wilson
“Twelve Years A Slave” by Solomon Northup
“The Souls of Black Folks” by W.E.B. Du Bois
Langston Hughes
“Cane” by Jean Toomer
“The Great Negro Plot” by Mat Johnson
“Passing” by Nella Larsen
“Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass”
“The Autobiography of Malcolm X”
“I Have a Dream” speech”
“Sula” by Toni Morrison
“The Known World” by Edward P. Jones
“The Color Purple” by Alice Walker
“The Intuitionist” by Colson Whitehead

Click “more” for a travel article about Tuskegee.

Where genius thrives
From peanuts to aerospace, Tuskegee has a long tradition of greatness

BY MICHAEL SCHUMAN SPECIAL TO THE TIMES UNION

Peanut margarine and some of the most courageous fighter pilots of World War II share common roots. So do author Ralph Ellison, pioneering research in the field of polio vaccines and the first African-American four-star general.

All are products of the only college or university designated a National Historic Site by the U.S. Congress: Tuskegee University, originally founded as Normal School for Colored Teachers, in Tuskegee, Ala.

Today, the campus serves the needs of scholars and educators, and is also the home of the Tuskegee Institute National Historic Site. (In 1892, the school was renamed the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute when it became independent from the state of Alabama. In 1985, Tuskegee attained university status.)

Layer upon layer of African-American history can be found here. On the Fourth of July 1891, Booker T. Washington, who was reared as a slave on a Virginia tobacco plantation, founded what is now regarded by educators as the African-American counterpart to Harvard University.

One of the world’s premier scientists, George Washington Carver, was lured here by Washington in 1896 with a promise of not much money but many opportunities for self-fulfillment. Carver planned on working at Tuskegee for only a few years. He stayed for 47, until his death in 1943.

In the air

By the time of Carver’s death, the Tuskegee Airmen were already being trained at nearby Moton Field. A prevailing thought among whites at the time was that African-Americans were not intelligent enough to succeed at military aviation. Nearly a thousand black aviators, about a quarter of them Tuskegee Institute students, served the United States with honor, albeit in a segregated unit.

Tuskegee University is today the No. 1 producer of African-American aerospace engineers in the United States. Over three quarters of the world’s black veterinarians are Tuskegee grads.

Ralph Ellison, the first black person to win the National Book Award, for his classic “Invisible Man,” attended school here, as did Daniel “Chappie” James, the first African-American four-star general.

The center of the physical campus is near Lincoln Gates. Here is where one will find the Booker T. Washington Monument, an elaborate statue of the dignified Washington, raising the veil from the head of an ex-slave emerging from under the Tuskegee founder’s right hand, which is pointing the way to progress through education and industry.

At the Oaks

Among the campus’ other historic attractions is Washington’s 15-room Queen Anne-style red brick home, The Oaks. It dates from 1899 and is typically heavy Victorian inside with one exception – the light and airy European landscape friezes painted high on the walls of the parlor and library on the first floor. The reason for these seeming incongruous art works? Washington had them placed there to inspire Tuskegee students to think beyond their worlds.

The Oaks, used by Washington as a private home and a quasi-public building for official receptions, was constructed as a massive student project. For example, those taking courses such as architecture and wood crafting lent their expertise, and students who calculated dimensions were graded in math classes. Indeed, several lived here while working on the formidable undertaking.

The three main rooms downstairs are furnished to period based on early photographs, while the second-floor rooms, save Washington’s personal study, are void of furnishings, mainly because no photographic evidence exists to use as guidelines. It is upstairs where visitors hear about the land Washington loved and the place where he died. It is reported that the educator said on his deathbed: “I was born in the South, I have lived and labored in the South and I expect to be buried in the South.”

After being rushed home from a speaking engagement in New York City, Washington died in his bedroom here on Nov. 14, 1915, of what is believed to be complications associated with diabetes and hypertension.

Museum, too

Much of Washington’s life is further explored in the showplace named in honor of his colleague, the George Washington Carver Museum. Built in 1915 as Tuskegee Institute’s new laundry building, it was converted to a museum two years before the scientist’s death in 1943. Pick up a telephone receiver here to listen to Washington speak a portion of his famous “Atlanta Address,” delivered Sept. 18, 1895, at the Atlantic Cotton States and International Exposition.

The oration was saved for posterity by his son Ernest Davidson Washington, who had the foresight to record it. Washington’s famous and still arguable words included: “In all things that are purely social, we (the races) can be as separate as the fingers yet as one hand in all things essential to human progress.” While some interpret that statement as a confirmation that Washington had segregationist views, others say it was merely a reminder from Washington that both black and white can coexist peacefully.

Less controversial was Washington’s Agricultural School on Wheels. Once a horse-drawn wagon, the movable school graduated into the motorized truck, which is displayed in the museum. The School on Wheels was the cornerstone of Tuskegee Institute’s extension services for the rural people of Alabama. Instructors on board taught the latest agricultural techniques and preached Tuskegee’s doctrines of self-sufficiency and self-reliance.

Peanuts aplenty

And what were those agricultural techniques? Many of them came from the lab of George Washington Carver, relocated here. As one might recall from fifth-grade history class, Carver was known for his concoctions with peanuts, something he explored while advocating the planting of peanuts in the South to replenish the land decimated by too many years of growing King Cotton.

Some of his 300 peanut products include the obvious, peanut butter, and the not so obvious, peanut mayonnaise. Medicines ranged from peanut rubbing oil called Penol Emulsion to peanut laxatives to peanut goiter treatment. In the miscellaneous categories were such concoctions as peanut axle grease, peanut linoleum and peanut diesel fuel.

In addition, the only center or polio treatment for African-Americans was also here at Tuskegee. Furthermore, Carver’s lab was one of those used to provide the HeLa cell cultures used to grow the polio virus, which ultimately led to the discovery of the Salk vaccine.

More interested in aiding humanity than his bank account, Carver had a ready reply to those who told him he should patent his work and receive compensation, since he could do much more for his people with more money. His reply: “If I had all that money, I might forget about my people.”

Both Washington and Carver are buried on the campus grounds, a short distance from the Booker T. Washington Monument.

Michael Schuman is a freelance writer based in New Hampshire.

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