Exploring a rich history at Tuskegee University

The George Washington Carver Museum at Tuskegee University, named for the renowned botanist who taught there. Alabama Tourism Department
The George Washington Carver Museum at Tuskegee University, named for the renowned botanist who taught there. Alabama Tourism Department

Two campus buildings best convey the institute's tale.

Posted: February 18, 2013

TUSKEGEE, Ala. - There is only one college or university designated a National Historic Site by the U.S. Congress, and it is not Harvard or Yale or Princeton. It is the Tuskegee Institute, now Tuskegee University.

History is rich on this campus, and the ghosts of its storied faculty and alumni are ever present. These include founder Booker T. Washington, botanist George Washington Carver, author Ralph Ellison, and Daniel "Chappie" James, the first African American four-star general.

The famed Tuskegee Airmen of World War II renown trained at nearby Moton Field. About 1,000 black aviators, of which roughly 250 were Tuskegee students, served proudly during the war. Their unit, however, was segregated.

Take a walk around the campus, and you will encounter turn-of-the-20th-century historic halls, the graves of Washington and Carver, and an abundance of statuary, all offering insight into Tuskegee's past. Near Lincoln Gates is likely the most famous statue, the Booker T. Washington Monument, an elaborate portrayal of the dignified and proud Washington raising the veil from the face of a former slave. Washington's right hand points the way to progress through education and industry.

Perhaps the best places to learn the story behind the institution are two buildings: the George Washington Carver Museum and Booker T. Washington's home, The Oaks.

Although the museum is named for Carver, a substantial amount of its square footage is devoted to the school's founder. Visitors can pick up a telephone handset to hear a recording of Washington's famous and controversial words: "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." To this day, that quote is analyzed and debated. Did Washington have segregationist views, or was he merely saying in his own way that black and white can coexist peacefully?

It was Washington who lured Carver here in 1896. Carver planned to stay just a few years, but remained until his death in 1943, spending his Tuskegee tenure teaching, researching, and advocating alternative agriculture usage. Carver's keen understanding of agriculture permitted him to rescue Southern soil ravaged by the overcultivation of cotton. He suggested that farmers plant peanuts to draw nitrogen from the air and enhance the land. Yet, the famed botanist, a devoutly religious man, often preferred offering simple lessons. In an introductory video, one hears an actor repeating Carver's simple words that composed his philosophy:

"Don't forget. A flower is God's silent messenger."

"No man can drag me down so low to make me hate him."

"If I had all that money, I might forget about my people."

Carver's lab has been relocated inside the museum. In it are the scientist's accoutrements: a beaker; a mortar and pestle; a microscope; sundry test tubes filled with weeds, fibers, and peanut shells; and jars still labeled with the markings that might recall long-forgotten lessons from high school chemistry - "H2 C2 O4" and "potass.iodide K1."

Also here permanently is Carver's Agricultural School on Wheels, a motorized truck that was the keystone of Tuskegee's extension service for the farmers of rural Alabama. The Agricultural School on Wheels staff preached self-sufficiency and self-reliance, and taught Carver's groundbreaking ideas in agriculture and domestic services.

The list of peanut by-products invented in Carver's labs seems endless: foods such as peanut mayonnaise, peanut cheese tutti frutti, and peanut chocolate fudge; peanut medicines including laxatives and rubbing oil; and assorted oddities including peanut shaving cream, peanut paints and wood stains, and peanut axle grease. In total, Carver's Tuskegee labs concocted about 300 peanut products.

Visitors can enter Tuskegee's other major attraction, Booker T. Washington's home, The Oaks, only as part of a guided tour. The Oaks is 15 rooms of heavy, dark Victoriana, with lace curtains on the windows and murals of European landscapes. It was also one of the first houses in Tuskegee to have electric lights. Guide Tyrone Brandyburg said the grand decor and depictions of European scenes had one main purpose: to get Tuskegee students to think beyond their own world.

The Oaks was built by Tuskegee students and was a quasi-public building. In addition to being Washington's residence, it was also a setting for official receptions. When The Oaks was being built, the unfinished home served as a temporary dormitory for those working on the structure. Students taking courses in architecture and woodcrafting offered their hands-on expertise, while math majors calculated dimensions. Due mainly to inexpensive student labor, says Brandyburg, The Oaks was built for a very affordable cost of about $50,000.

Three main rooms downstairs are furnished to period based on early photographs. According to Brandyburg, with the exception of Washington's study, the second-floor rooms are without furnishings, because no archival photographs showing those rooms have been found.

It is near the upstairs study where visitors hear about Washington's devotion to the land he loved. As part of the guided tour, Brandyburg offers Washington's deathbed quote: "I was born in the South, I have lived and labored in the South, and I expect to be buried in the South."

After falling ill on a speaking engagement in November 1915 in New York, Washington was rushed back to his Tuskegee home. He died less than eight hours later in an upstairs bedroom as he wished, in the land where he felt he belonged.

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