Blogs > Skipped History with Ben Tumin > The "Singular and Emblematic" History of Tuskegee with Dr. Brian Jones

Mar 3, 2023

The "Singular and Emblematic" History of Tuskegee with Dr. Brian Jones

tags: African American history,history,Booker T. Washington,colleges and universities,skipped history,Tuskegee Institute,brian jones

After our last couple of interviews, exploring the history of socialism and the culture wars, I wondered: are we destined to fight the same battles from the past over and over again, or are we (haltingly) moving closer to a more just society? Dr. Brian Jones, the inaugural director of the Center for Educators and Schools of The New York Public Library and author of The Tuskegee Student Uprising: A History, answers that question through the lens of the Tuskegee Institute.

A condensed transcript edited for clarity is below.

Ben: Dr. Jones, thank you so much for being here.

BJ: It's great to be with you.

Ben: To begin, let's discuss the founding of Tuskegee. Who founded it when, and how were “compromises and contradictions” baked into the school from the beginning?

BJ: Tuskegee Institute was founded in 1881 by Booker T. Washington in a moment of counterrevolution.

Remember that after the Civil War, with support from the victorious northern armies, Black people tried to build a biracial democracy. It was a revolutionary moment, and as Black southerners were elected to office during Reconstruction, top on their agenda was building schools. Soon, all southern states included public education in their constitutions, which meant that many white folks went to school for the first time thanks to the initiatives of their Black neighbors. 

Of course, this interest in education and the democratic aspiration to build a society from the bottom up was thwarted. A counterrevolution followed. Using violence, terror, intimidation, and murder, whites and the newly formed Klan put the genie of Reconstruction back in the bottle. 

It was in that moment that Washington founded Tuskegee. And any new school that was going to attract white people's funding, that was going to be well supported in this counterrevolution, was necessarily going to be a school that was not singing the same song as the earlier Black Power calls for public school, democracy, and for “one person, one vote.” It was going to be a different kind of animal by necessity. 

Ben: Can you discuss Washington's pedagogical philosophy and how it chafed with students’ expectations? In 1896, he tells students, “We are not a college, and if there are any of you here who expect to get a college training, you'll be disappointed.” By college training, I assume he was not referencing the ability to do keg stands, but correct me if I’m wrong.

BJ: Well, it's complicated. Undoubtedly, Booker T. Washington was making a big public show of promoting “industrial education,” which meant a curriculum oriented toward manual labor that would essentially train Black students to serve segregated communities. No doubt he made some of these comments to secure continued white funding of the school, but there’s also evidence that because Washington relied on college-educated teachers, what you might call “the classical liberal arts education” ended up being on offer anyway.

To this day, people debate whether Washington was a sort of sly fox taking white folks’ money and then providing subversive education on the sly, or if was complicit in the erection of the new Jim Crow order.

What’s so interesting to me is that it's not like students showed up and said, well, Booker T’s doing his thing. It's understandable because look at the counterrevolution and the violence and the lynchings and everything that's going on around us. 

Instead, students from Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana showed up on the campus and pushed back. They thought there was too much compromise on the campus. They wrote petitions, they wrote letters, and sometimes, like in 1896 and 1903, they went on strike. Students were required to work on the campus: construct its buildings and maintain its premises. This was part of their instruction in learning the supposed value of manual labor.

But in those years, the students refused to work, trying to get more time for study. They recognized that questions over the purpose of their education resonated with implications about their place in society. So you can see how from early in Tuskegee’s history, student protests were both singular and emblematic of the larger, deeper patterns and problems in Black society and the US writ large.

Ben: In a reflection of this protest tradition at Tuskegee, I was taken aback that as far back as 1907, you found records of 41% of the students being subject to disciplinary actions in one school year. That's so many people! If 41% of the players in our soccer game got yellow cards, it would be really hard to keep the ball moving.

BJ: A good point.

Ben: Washington led Tuskegee until his death in 1915. How did the school evolve in the following decades?

BJ: There were a number of shifts after Washington's death. Nationally, there was a dramatic expansion of schools as an institution. As more and more people went to high school, Tuskegee had to raise its standards for Black students to be able to get somewhere with their degrees. Tuskegee would've gone out of business if it maintained this “we are not a college” stance, so it grew into a university offering graduate degrees.

Still, during the Great Depression and the buildup to World War II, the philanthropy that had underwritten the university, once donated by the Carnegies of the world, faded away. So Tuskegee, like other historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and really all of higher education at the time, became deeply enmeshed with the federal government and the military. For example, the now-famous Tuskegee airmen program began in 1939. 

There was a radical edge to these developments. Tuskegee leaders still deferred to the local white, political power structure in Tuskegee proper (Tuskegee is a city in Alabama), but there were increasing numbers of people with advanced degrees working on campus and a really well-educated group of people living in the surrounding community who essentially weren’t allowed to vote.

Ben: Right, to limit Black voting power in the area, in 1957, the Alabama state legislature passed a bill to change the shape of Tuskegee City limits from a “simple square” to what one person at the time called “a curious 28-sided figure resembling a stylized seahorse,” aka a seahorse that cuffs its jeans.

BJ: Ha! Eventually, this tension came to a head, and Tuskegee faculty patiently but persistently campaigned for the right to vote, bringing a lawsuit that went all the way up to the US Supreme Court. It’s not widely remembered today, but at the time the battle over voting rights in Tuskegee was national news. In the Court case, Gomillion v. Lightfoot (1960), the Tuskegee faculty successfully overturned the gerrymander.

Ben: Building on this victory, and moving toward the student uprising, you write “the generation of young Black people who went to college in the 1960s confronted a contradiction between raised expectations and a power structure (white and Black) resistant to change.”

Could you elaborate?

BJ: So the same year that the faculty stepped out of the paradigm of deference to the local white supremacist hierarchy and scored a slam dunk at the Supreme Court, four students at an HBCU sat down at a lunch counter in Greensboro, setting off a new phase of the Civil Rights Movement. Meanwhile, between the years 1960 and 1961, several African nations became independent. 

Tuskegee students watched all of these developments unfold. At the same time, they went off campus, out of their privileged little bubble, into rural counties to fight for voting rights, where they encountered the violence, terror, and intimidation that rural people heroically endured. 

So, they got this tremendous political education off campus, and when they got back to school, class seemed boring as hell. They weren’t reading any works by the leaders of African decolonization; they weren’t learning about how the world actually worked. They felt like their intellectual growth outside the classroom far outstripped what was happening within it.

And then Sammy Younge, a Tuskegee student very involved in the Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee, was murdered by a white gas station attendant in the early days of 1966. His death, the acquittal of his murderer by an all-white jury 11 months later, and the administration’s reaction, which the students reckoned was more about tamping down the student movement than trying to get justice for Younge, was a radicalizing moment. Suddenly, all of the compromises Tuskegee had made over the years felt 1000% intolerable. How could the students stand another moment of injustice? 

In the aftermath of Younge's murder, the students successfully campaigned to elect the first Black sheriff in the South since Reconstruction. Then, they turned their attention to the campus, insisting that the school needed to change, too, and articulating a “Black university” idea then spreading around the HBCUs. The idea was to change the university from a feeder to corporate America into an institution that served the larger social agenda of the Black community. To get their point across, just days after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis in 1968, students took the school’s board of trustees hostage.

Ben: A reminder that you should never mess with nerds.

BJ: Well-put: as you allude, the hostage-takers were led by engineering students. I should mention, they didn’t have any weapons or anything. They were armed really with documents and walkie-talkies. Nobody was in physical danger. One of the trustees was a former major general in the US Army, and when he told the students I gotta go catch a flight, they were like, well, I guess you gotta go! and let him leave. When the white press asked him how violent the students were, he laughed.

The state of Alabama responded differently. They sent in the National Guard, armed with bayonet tips on their rifles. Ultimately the administration made the decision to close the campus to avoid a blood bath, which conveniently also served their agenda of trying to weed out the radicals. Afterward, the administration basically dismissed every single student and said you had to reapply to come back. A federal judge intervened, but this move really blunted what had been a very powerful student movement.

Still, when classes resumed, it was clear that the students had won significant victories: representation on all committees dealing with student affairs, full scholarships for athletes, 50 new course hours devoted to Black culture and an African studies program, and the ability to withdraw from courses at any time—in other words, things that made it possible to be successful students and which equipped them to participate in making change.

The victories reflect how Black students throughout the 20th century, and particularly in the 60s, had a transformative impact on all of higher education. The democratization of campus life, student participation in governance, the opening of new intellectual horizons that made space for women's studies and LGBTQ studies and ethnic studies, the origin of Black Studies as we know it today—all of these things came from students’ efforts.

Ben: I’m curious about some of the conclusions you draw when reflecting on this movement today. As you write, we’re now witnessing a crisis for Black Studies departments, which are increasingly “underfunded or cut altogether.”

Related, you say that “depending on your perspective, one could conclude either that the Black movements in the 1960s ‘went too far’ or, alternatively, that they didn’t go far enough. To me, the latter framework makes more sense than the former.”

I wonder if you can explain your perspective a little further.

BJ: I go back to where we started: Reconstruction; to the promise of restructuring society in a more fundamental way.

Until we make a more fundamental change, I think we're going to feel like we’re stuck in an endless cycle; that we’re fighting the same battles over and over and over again—because there's some truth to that. Until we destroy the institutional supports and edifices of white supremacy, we're going to keep finding grassroots, armed white supremacist groups; we're going to keep seeing manifestations of inequality in education; we’re going to keep stamping out one kind of power structure only for further injustice to arise someplace else.

What gives me hope that we can break out of these cycles is that we've seen periodic possibilities for more democratic and egalitarian modes of life. I take heart from moments like Reconstruction, where the world gets turned upside down and you glimpse the contours of something totally different that can be created in this country.

And there’s a reason that, as Tuskegee’s history suggests, we often get these glimpses at educational institutions. They are where young people gather, and despite all of the compromises, despite everything we lay on top of education, despite the ways parents try to ban books or put young people into boxes, students break out of them and push us to think in new ways, to see in new ways, to continue trying to build a new society.

Ben: A graceful concluding note, Dr. Jones. Thank you so much for your time and erudition. I look forward to returning the favor and schooling you on the soccer pitch soon.

BJ: It's been a lot of fun. See you out there!

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