September 19, 1881:
On this day Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama, held its first classes. Booker T. Washington, then the school’s only teacher, instructed the inaugural class of thirty African American students out of a one-room shanty near the Butler Chapel AME Zion Church. As the newly hired principal in Tuskegee, Booker Washington began classes for his new school in a rundown church and shanty. The following year (1882), he purchased a former plantation of 100 acres in size. In 1973 the Tuskegee Institute, now Tuskegee University, did an oral history interview with Annie Lou “Bama” Miller. In that interview she indicated that her grandmother sold the original 100 acres of land to Booker T. Washington. That oral history interview is located at the Tuskegee University archives. The earliest campus buildings were constructed on that property, usually by students as part of their work-study. By the start of the 20th century, the Tuskegee Institute occupied nearly 2,300 acres. Born into slavery in Virginia, Washington was a strong promoter of education, economic advancement, and personal responsibility among African Americans. He stressed the virtues of patience, enterprise, and thrift, and believed aggressive protests for equal rights were counter-productive. Much of Washington’s philosophy was reflected in the early Tuskegee curriculum, which emphasized skilled trades and religious study. Often, his efforts had to overcome the blatant racism and inequality of Alabama officials who did not share a commitment to African American advancement — and in some cases, explicitly opposed it. At a Tuskegee graduation ceremony in the 1890s, Alabama Governor William C. Oates took the stage after the commencement speaker and made clear his views of black education. “I want to give you niggers a few words of plain talk and advice,” the former Confederate colonel began: “No such address as you have just listened to is going to do you any good; it’s going to spoil you. You might just as well understand that this is a white man’s country as far as the South is concerned, and we are going to make you keep your place. Understand that. I have nothing more to say.”
Booker T. Washington served as the head of the Tuskegee Institute until his death in 1915. Under his leadership, the school’s enrollment swelled to more than 1,500 students and accumulated an endowment of nearly two million dollars. Washington successfully advocated for legislation to make Tuskegee independent of the State of Alabama and oversaw the construction of many campus buildings. Today, Tuskegee University continues to thrive as a historically black institution educating students of all backgrounds and boasting a student body of more than 3,000. (Info courtesy of The Equal Justice Initiative)
In 1965 Tuskegee University was declared a National Historic Landmark for the significance of its academic programs, its role in higher education for African-Americans, and its status in United States history. Congress authorized the establishment of the Tuskegee Institute National Historic Site.
The National Historic Site includes The Oaks, Booker T. Washington’s home and the George Washington Carver Museum. As the landmark designation did not define a limited area, the district is believed to have included the entire Tuskegee University campus at the time. Points of “special historic interest,” noted in the landmark description include:
- The Oaks (Washington’s Home)
- Booker T. Washington monument, Lifting the Veil of Ignorance statue by Charles Keck
- Grave of Booker T. Washington
- Grave of George Washington Carver
- The George Washington Carver Museum
The Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site is at Moton Field, in Tuskegee, Alabama.