Tuskegee Institute (now, Tuskegee University) - American Education
Historically, one of the most important institutions of African-American education in the United States. The first college operated entirely by African Americans, Tuskegee Institute stood as proof positive that blacks were the intellectual equals of whites in a state where it had been against the law even to teach blacks, who were regarded as subhuman.
Founded at Tuskegee, Alabama, in 1881, by African-American educator and former slave Booker T. Washington, Tuskegee started out in an old shanty and a dilapidated church, whose roof leaked so badly that a student had to hold an umbrella over Washington’s head as he attempted to teach. At the time, there were no schools in Alabama for blacks, and the level of poverty and illiteracy discovered in Alabama “left me [Washington] with a heavy heart. The work to be done in order to lift these people seemed beyond accomplishing.”
He nevertheless opened the doors of his school to 30 students “about equally divided between the sexes,” but he limited enrollment to students older than 15 who could already read. From the beginning, Washington hoped to train his students to be teachers and leaders who would educate other African Americans. But his students were former slaves from plantations and were so poor that he had to do “something besides teach them mere books.” He had to teach them basic hygiene. “We wanted to teach the students how to bathe; how to care for their teeth and clothing. We wanted to teach them what to eat, and how to eat it properly, and how to care for their rooms.”
In addition, Washington wanted to teach them as many trades as possible, so that they could teach others to become needed members of their communities. He believed that “the whole future of the Negro rested largely upon . . . whether or not he should make himself, through his skill, intelligence and character, of such undeniable value to the community in which he lived that the community could not dispense with his presence.” Any individual, said Washington, “who learned to do something better than anyone else—learned to do a common thing in an uncommon manner— had solved his problem, regardless of the color of his skin.”
Washington proceeded to make work an essential part of student and faculty life at Tuskegee. In addition to agricultural and domestic work, students learned all aspects of construction, including design, architecture, masonry, carpentry and roofing. They learned to harvest trees, mill their own lumber, manufacture their own bricks, make their own clothing, mattresses, bedding and upholstery and build their own desks, chairs and furniture. They soon cleared the land and began growing food, some to eat themselves and some to sell, to repay the $500 Washington had borrowed to buy land for the college. Washington expanded the farm to include livestock, which soon produced enough to feed the faculty and students and even generated extra funds that permitted students to attend school full-time, without holding down jobs outside school.
At the beginning of the second year, Washington raised funds to build a large central building. Again, students dug out and laid the foundation and, with the faculty alongside, erected the superstructure. Washington marveled that “only sixteen years before . . . no Negro could be taught from books without the teacher receiving the condemnation of the law.” Over the next 19 years, 40 buildings rose on the Tuskegee campus, all but four of them products of student-faculty labor. “Hundreds of men are now scattered throughout the South,” Washington later reminisced, “who received their knowledge of mechanics while being taught how to erect these buildings. Skill and knowledge are handed down from one set of students to another in this way, until at the present time a building of any description or size can be constructed wholly by our instructors and students, from the drawing of the plans to the putting in of electric fixtures, without going off grounds for a single workman.”
Student skills soon earned money for the school. The kiln they built to make bricks became an important industry at the school. After 20 years, Washington could say that “our students manufacture twelve hundred thousand [1,200,000] bricks, of a quality suitable to be sold in any market. [White people] who had no contact with the school, and perhaps no sympathy with it, came to us to buy bricks, because they found out ours were good bricks. They discovered that we were supplying a real want in the community.” The school had the same experience building wagons, carts and buggies. “The man who learns at Tuskegee to build and repair wagons and carts is regarded as a benefactor by both races in the community,” said Washington. “The individual who can do something that the world wants done will, in the end make his way, regardless of race.”
In 1896, Washington expanded the school by bringing in George Washington Carver to head the school’s agriculture department, and Carver’s work brought world renown to Tuskegee. When Washington died in 1915, he left behind him a monument of more than 100 buildings, spread over 25,000 acres, where more than 1,500 students trained each year in more than 300 trades and professions. At the time of Washington’s death, the entire student body and faculty of 300 were African Americans and almost all were the descendants of former slaves. No longer a trade and agricultural institute, Tuskegee University is now a coeducational professional and technical institution offering undergraduate and graduate programs to more than 3,000 students, most of whom are African American, in liberal arts and sciences, agriculture, business, education, engineering, health professions and veterinary medicine.