Tuskegee Institute

From nondescript beginnings, Tuskegee Institute, now known as Tuskegee University, emerged from the nineteenth century as one of the nation's premier historically black colleges and universities, a Registered National Historic Landmark, and a National Historic Site of the National Park Service. Founded as a normal school for black teachers, Tuskegee is located in Macon County, Alabama, one of the state's poorest counties with an African American population of 85 percent. Tuskegee University grew out of State Senator Wilbur F. Foster's bid for reelection. Foster sought the black vote and turned to the former slave Lewis Adams for support. Instead of money, Adams accepted Foster's promise to establish a “colored” college in Macon County, and on 10 February 1881 a bill passed the state legislature appropriating two thousand dollars for the Tuskegee Normal School. With no buildings, no students, and no faculty, Booker T. Washington was hired as principal. Washington was a graduate of the Hampton Institute in Virginia and a disciple of the Hampton founder Samuel Chapman Armstrong. Although Tuskegee officials had originally sought a white male for the position, Washington proved to be ideally suited for the challenge of starting a school for blacks in the heart of Alabama, and he remained at the institution until his death in 1915.

Early Years.

Booker T. Washington arrived in Tuskegee in late June 1881 with a plan. He met with local supporters, toured the region, and researched opportunities for student housing while preparing to educate a small group of blacks. He selected an abandoned shack next to the local African Episcopal Methodist Church known as Butler Hall, and the school opened a few weeks later on 4 July 1881 with thirty students. Another dozen students were added two weeks later, but growth was slow. The students ranged from teenagers to forty-year-old men, most of whom were local black teachers. J. B. F. Marshall, Hampton's treasurer, personally loaned Washington two hundred dollars which was immediately used as a down payment on what remained of the estate of the former plantation owner William Banks Bowen. Burned and damaged during the Civil War, the property consisted of two cabins, a large stable, and a chicken coop on a hundred-acre lot. In the spirit of Samuel Chapman Armstrong's philosophy of self-reliance, Washington ordered the students to rebuild the structures at the same time they were attending class. His plan served two purposes: he rebuilt the estate while demonstrating to the students the value of industrial education. With philanthropic support from sources outside the South and a series of fund-raisers, Washington was able to pay the balance due on the property by April 1882.

Washington's educational objectives were fourfold: to teach a trade, to prepare industrial leaders, to demonstrate the dignity of manual labor, and simultaneously to offer a way for students to cover their own expenses. To Washington's mind, manual labor taught moral training, character, critical thinking, and self reliance as well as preparing students for future jobs. His ideas did not escape criticism, but Washington continued to emphasize industrial education, although it should not be overlooked that Tuskegee's original curriculum included academic courses in rhetoric, literature, geography, astronomy, and botany. Washington knew that Tuskegee would need the support of affluent whites in order to expand, and he again turned to northern philanthropists for support. In the spring of 1882, Washington and one of his employees, Olivia Davidson, toured New England seeking private financial support, visiting individuals and churches, and speaking at every opportunity. He and Davidson (whom Washington married in 1886) raised in excess of five thousand dollars, enabling Tuskegee to expand its property, faculty, and course of instruction. The benefits were immediate; three-story Porter Hall provided housing (including a girls’ dormitory), classrooms, a chapel, and a library. A men's dormitory, Armstrong Hall, was built in 1888.

Funding remained Washington's bête noire, despite the fact that the state approved an additional one-thousand-dollar annual expenditure in 1883. The Peabody Fund began an annual appropriation of five hundred dollars that same year, and the Slater Fund followed suit with one thousand dollars per annum in 1884. More building followed, and campus buildings with names such as Carnegie, Rockefeller, Rosenwald, Huntington, Sage, and Kellog attest to the philanthropic support from northern sources that Tuskegee enjoyed over the years. By 1900, Tuskegee's institutional properties were valued at over $300,000. In 1892, the Alabama legislature changed the school's name to Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, and Tuskegee was permitted to act independently of the state, clearing the way for additional philanthropic support but divorcing the school from state resources.

As Tuskegee grew in size—there were 169 students by the 1883–1884 school year—so did the need for additional faculty. Olivia Davidson taught the sciences; Warren Logan taught literature and the business curriculum, going on to become the school's treasurer shortly thereafter. William Jenkins, who arrived at Tuskegee in 1883 from Fisk University, taught the bulk of the academic courses. Henry Clay Ferguson, a former slave, managed the farm. Booker T. Washington's brother, John Washington, was in charge of industrial training and served as cadet commandant for the school's older boys. Washington himself taught moral science and composition in addition to carrying out his administrative duties. One of Tuskegee's most important industrial subjects was brick-making, which taught students a trade, provided the foundation for campus buildings, and generated local income. After much trial and error (and the contributions of Ferguson), Tuskegee bricks became a reality—Tuskegee bricks are still to be found in the region today.

Washington's most famous and influential employee was George Washington Carver, a graduate of Iowa State who arrived at Tuskegee in 1896. He was an agricultural genius whose work with peanuts is yet unparalleled. Carver advocated crop diversification, utilized all local resources in agricultural practices, and initiated the Tuskegee Agricultural Experiment Station. Washington also recruited the architect Robert R. Taylor, a black Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate, to lead the architecture and construction program. Charles W. Wood was hired to teach drama and elocution. By 1891, Tuskegee enrolled 731 students and a faculty of 30. Ten years later, there were nearly 1,100 students and over 100 faculty members. At the time of Washington's death at age fifty-nine, Tuskegee boasted a student body of 1,500 enrolled in forty trades (or majors), approximately 200 faculty, and 100 campus buildings.

Despite criticism from other black leaders, Washington held to an accommodationist view of race relations, and the institution reflected his philosophy. President William McKinley visited Tuskegee in December, 1898 and, before a crowd of more than five thousand people, McKinley and Washington reviewed the students. The president addressed another large crowd in the campus chapel, calling Washington a great leader and referring to Tuskegee as progressive. With the presidential visit and tacit seal of approval, Washington was well armed against critics both local and national.

Tuskegee after Washington.

With Washington's passing, Robert R. Moton became principal, and Tuskegee entered a new era. Moton was a Hampton graduate who headed that institution's military education program before agreeing to move to Tuskegee. Moton wished to steer Tuskegee away from Washington's accommodationist philosophy. Under Moton, Tuskegee added a department to prepare black teachers (1920), and a college curriculum was initiated in 1927. In 1923, Moton offered institutional property for the construction of a veteran's hospital to be staffed by African Americans. Moton also insisted that the college courses be taught by blacks, even in the face of white opposition. He responded to student demands that the school introduce a more modern course of instruction, and classes in science and technology were added. Increases in enrollment were gradual. Dr. Frederick D. Patterson succeeded Moton in 1935. Being Moton's son-in-law and a graduate of Prairie View, Iowa State, and Cornell (1933), Patterson was also a doctor of veterinary medicine. Under Patterson, the school name was changed to Tuskegee Institute (1937). A graduate program was added (1943), and schools of veterinary medicine (1945) and nursing were created (1953) with the aid of state educational funds. Patterson also stressed the need for a modern engineering program and successfully lobbied for the establishment of a training program for black pilots at Tuskegee, resulting in the Tuskegee Army Airfield (1941). Black pilot training from 1939 to 1943 is best remembered in the story of the legendary Tuskegee Airmen. In 1944, Patterson conceived the United Negro College Fund that to this day provides educational opportunities for African Americans. A highly decorated educator and administrator, Patterson remained at Tuskegee until 1953.

The responsibility of leading Tuskegee through the civil rights era fell to Luther H. Foster, a 1941 graduate of the University of Chicago who originally came to Tuskegee in 1941 as business manager. Foster earned his doctorate from Chicago in 1951 and became president of Tuskegee in 1953. With the struggle for civil rights in Alabama and the Deep South at a fever pitch, Foster's administration was marked by militant student involvement in campus affairs. In 1968 a group of students held several members of the board of trustees hostage over student policies, but despite this dramatic episode, change came slowly to Tuskegee. Tragically, the Tuskegee student and SNCC activist Sammy Younge was murdered at a local Texaco station when he attempted to use a “whites only” restroom during Foster's tenure as president; the acquittal of his white murderer led to unrest in the black community. Also during Foster's tenure, Dr. C. G. Gomillion initiated what became a Supreme Court case over gerrymandering intended to disfranchise blacks in the city of Tuskegee. The Court ruled that the blacks had been deprived of their Fifteenth Amendment rights. Academically, Foster continued to modernize the curriculum, and the College of Arts and Sciences and School of Business were established. Foster died of a heart attack in 1981.

Tuskegee Today.

In the early twenty-first century, the latest president in Tuskegee's history (there have been only five) was Dr. Benjamin F. Payton, a graduate of South Carolina State, Harvard, Columbia, and Yale (PhD, 1963) who held various administrative positions and was a program officer with the Ford Foundation before arriving at Tuskegee in 1981. Payton oversaw another name change (to Tuskegee University in 1985) and a massive capital campaign ($169 million), the largest ever for a historically black college or university. Under Payton's guidance, Tuskegee has greatly expanded its academic programs, creating a doctoral program in materials science, engineering, and biosciences—one degree program; centers for aerospace engineering and bioethics research; and a department of aviation science. The campus underwent dramatic cosmetic changes, and in 1994, enrollment peaked at 3,500. As of 2008, Tuskegee had an enrollment of 3,000 students with 900 faculty and staff. It was home to five colleges: agriculture, environmental, and natural sciences; business and information science; engineering, architecture, and the physical sciences; liberal arts and education; and veterinary medicine, nursing, and allied health. Tuskegee boasted forty-nine degree programs, and over one hundred buildings and structures on five thousand acres of campus and adjacent forest area cumulatively valued in excess of $500 million.

In 2008, Tuskegee had an impressive list of alumni (38,000), including the writers Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray; the New Orleans mayor C. Ray Nagin; the musician Lionel Ritchie (members of the Commodores met on campus); the comedian Keenan Ivory Wayans; the U.S. Army general Daniel “Chappie” James (the nation's first black four-star general); the colonel William R. Saunders, inspector general at Robins AFB; as well as the educators Dr. Marvalene Hughes and Dr. Vera King Farris. Another prominent alumnus is T. M. Campbell, the first cooperative extension agent in the United States who eventually became field agent for seven southern states.

[See also Alabama; Education; Educators and Academics; Historically Black Colleges and UniversitiesIndustrial Education Movement; and Washington, Booker T.]


Bedou, Arthur P. The Tuskegee Institute. Brooklyn, NY: Albertype, 1911. An early illustrated history of Tuskegee.

Citro, Joseph F. Booker T. Washington's Tuskegee Institute: Black School-Community, 1900–1915. Rochester, N.Y.: Citro, 1973. Details Tuskegee during the early years of the twentieth century.

Denton, Virginia L. Booker T. Washington and the Adult Education Movement. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1993. An overview of Washington and his ideas about adult and industrial education.

Harlan, Louis R. Booker T. Washington: The Making of a Black Leader, 1856–1901. New York: Oxford University Press, 1972. Definitive biography of Washington's early years.

Harlan, Louis R. Booker T. Washington: The Wizard of Tuskegee, 1901–1915. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983. Definitive biography of Washington's later years.

Jackson, McArthur. A Historical Study of the Founding and Historical development of Tuskegee Institute. Greensboro: University of North Carolina-Greensboro, 1983. A comprehensive history of Tuskegee.

Scipio, L. Albert. Pre-War Days at Tuskegee: Historical Essay on Tuskegee Institute (1881–1943). Silver Spring, Md.: Roman, 1987. A history of Tuskegee from the early years to World War II.

Spencer, Samuel R. Booker T. Washington and the Negro's Place in American Life. Boston: Little, Brown, 1955. A biography of Washington with an emphasis on the Tuskegee years.