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A Legacy of History and Education at Tuskegee

Charles Hillinger's America

April 14, 1985|CHARLES HILLINGER | Times Staff Writer

TUSKEGEE, Ala. — Tuskegee Institute, one of the nation's foremost black schools, is not only a university, but a national park as well.

About 53 acres of the main campus and 25 historic buildings in the area--many still in use as classrooms, dormitories, school offices and a hospital, theater, museum and chapel--are jointly administered by the National Park Service and Tuskegee Institute.

Last year, 100,000 men, women and children from every state and many foreign countries came here not as students, but to visit the school made famous by Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver.

They mingled on campus with the 3,500 students from 43 states and 32 other nations, including 150 students from Nigeria.

In the heart of the campus, not far from the university's striking chapel, are the graves of Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver in that part of the school set aside by President Gerald Ford in 1974 as a National Historic Site.

Across from the graves stands Charles Keck's 1922 monument to Booker T. Washington, with the inscription:

Booker T. Washington 1856-1915. He lifted the veil of ignorance from his people and pointed the way to progress through education and industry.

Nearby is the red-brick George Washington Carver Museum, dedicated by Henry Ford in 1941 when the auto maker came to Tuskegee to pay tribute to the aging professor-scientist. Carver died two years later.

The museum, now part of the Tuskegee National Historic Site, preserves and exhibits paintings, tools, handiwork and lab experiments produced by the famed scientist during his 40 years as a member of Tuskegee Institute's faculty.

Carver came to Tuskegee in 1896 to head up the agricultural college and conduct his research and experiments with peanuts, sweet potatoes and other crops.

"Just the history itself of Tuskegee attracts many students. Its history and pre-eminence in the academic world," insists Ron Sample, 22, a senior from San Bernardino, Calif., majoring in computer science. "As a black person I have a good feeling being here."

It was Booker T. Washington, a former slave, who founded Tuskegee Institute on July 4, 1881. He was only 22.

Washington answered the call to start a teachers' school for blacks after Lewis Adams, a tinsmith and former slave, and George W. Campbell, a banker and former slave owner--an unlikely combination--persuaded the Alabama Legislature to establish the school in Tuskegee.

The Legislature appropriated $2,000 to launch Tuskegee Institute, making no provisions for land or buildings. That was left to Washington. Classes were started in an abandoned plantation shanty with 30 young men and women, the school's first students.

Washington's objective was to turn out teachers who would go across the land and bring education to blacks. He succeeded beyond his greatest expectations.

To help pay for their education, students spent time each day growing crops and raising livestock. They became brickmakers. They built the classrooms, dormitories and other school buildings from red bricks fired on campus.

By the time Washington died in 1915, Tuskegee had become an internationally famous institution. The main campus had grown to include more than 100 buildings on 268 acres--the buildings constructed by students out of those red bricks. Nearly all of the student-constructed buildings are still in use today, many of them part of the national park on campus.

Tuskegee Institute's undergraduate instruction comes under seven major areas: the College of Arts and Sciences, School of Agriculture and Home Economics, School of Business, School of Education, School of Engineering and Architecture, School of Nursing and Allied Health, and the School of Veterinary Medicine.

There are 76 degrees offered, including 45 bachelor's, 26 master's, a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine and four graduate degrees for educational specialists.

The veterinary school is one of only 27 in the nation. Founded in 1944, it has trained 90% of the black DVMs in America. There are 260 students in the veterinary school; 69 or 29% are white, the rest are black. Of the 39,000 doctors of veterinary medicine in the country, only 600 or 1.5% are black.

Construction is under way for the new $12.6-million Gen. Daniel (Chappie) James Center for Aerospace Science on campus, paid for by a $9-million federal grant and a $3.5-million appropriation from the Alabama Legislature. A fund-raising drive is under way to raise another $6.1 million for equipment, scholarships and endowments.

"As recently as four years ago, only 22 black students were among those earning aerospace engineering degrees in the entire country," noted Benjamin F. Payton, Tuskegee's fifth president in its 104-year history. "And, it wasn't until 1983 that a black person was included on America's astronaut team."

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