Tuskegee, Alabama, is home to two National Historic Sites: the Tuskegee Institute NHS and the Tuskegee Airmen NHS.  We visited both en route to Montgomery, and had another fabulous day of history lessons learned / re-learned.

Tuskegee Institute National Historic Site celebrates Tuskegee Institute, a private, historically black university, and two of the early leaders at what was called “Normal School for Colored Teachers at Tuskegee” when it was established back in 1881. Started by a former slave, Lewis Adams, and a former slave owner, George Campbell, the school provided educational opportunities for African Americans who had long been denied the chance to gain an education. Opened in 1881, it became a beacon of hope for the formerly enslaved who knew only farming.

Here young black students learned practical job skills such as brick-making, carpentry and building, printing, upholstery, dressmaking, food service skills, better farming skills, and many other trades that they were then instructed “to return to the plantation districts and show the people there how to put new energy and new ideas into farming, as well as into the intellectual and moral and religious life of the people.”

Under the direction of an ambitious young teacher (just 25 when he was hired), Booker T. Washington, students were taught the value of hard work and self-discipline.  They wore uniforms, attended church daily, and were instructed in hygiene and social graces.  Washington strove to make Tuskegee as self-sufficient as possible, and in the process, he instilled resourcefulness and independence in his students.  In the early years, they grew their own food, and with bricks they made themselves, built buildings designed by faculty architects.  The school was in the public eye, and it became a showcase for the talents and character of the students.  As word of Tuskegee spread, benefactors like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller supported the school and helped it grow.

Booker T. Washington's study inside The Oaks
Booker T. Washington’s study inside The Oaks
The Oaks - Booker T. Washington's home at the Tuskegee Institute
The Oaks – Washington’s home on campus and a showcase for all to see what his students were capable of doing if provided education and opportunity

In 1899, students of Tuskegee built The Oaks.  Now available to tour with an NPS Park Ranger, it was once home to Washington, his wife, Margaret Murray Washington (who was also instrumental at the school; she coordinated the women’s curriculum), and their daughter.  Through building this highly-visible structure on campus, students applied their building and furniture-crafting skills, and they trained and earned money by cleaning and maintaining the house.  Students and faculty were often guests here, as well.  As the first president of the school, Washington lived here and would serve until he died in 2015.  The monument dedicated to him is inscribed, “He lifted the veil of ignorance from his people and pointed the way to progress through education and industry.”  

Another famous instructor here at Tuskegee was George Washington Carver.  

Brought in in 1896 by Washington when the agriculture department was established at Tuskegee, Carver, a botanist and professor of agriculture at Iowa State College, broadened the scope of the school to include teaching farmers and their wives about nutrition, home construction, food preservation, and hygiene.  He is famously noted for his work with peanuts, sweet potatoes, and a host of other crops.  

In looking for an inexpensive protein for the meager diets of the rural poor, the peanut, he learned, was cheaply grown, easily stored, and offered enrichment to the soil.  

He noted, “The primary idea in all of my work was to help the farmer and fill the poor man’s empty dinner pail.”

George Washington Carver
George Washington Carver
Tuskegee's Movable School
Tuskegee’s “Movable School” that brought education out to the farmers who couldn’t come to Tuskegee

Carter also sought to educate farmers who could not come to Tuskegee.  In 1906, he and Washington initiated the “Movable School” using the Jesup Wagon that Carver designed to bring training right to a farmer’s doorstep.

Over the last century, Tuskegee has evolved into a university with strengths in many fields.  The school’s growth has always been guided by Washington’s vision of improving the lot of African Americans and, by achieving that goal, elevating all of American society.

Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site 

commemorates the contributions of African American airmen in World War II.  Here’s their abbreviated story:

The hangars at Tuskegee Airfield's Moton Field
The hangars at Tuskegee’s Moton Field
Inside the Tuskegee Airmen Museum
It is said that these Airmen had to fight for a double victory – victory from Nazism abroad and against racism at home
The Tuskegee Airmen's combat record
The Tuskegee Airmen’s successful combat record

In 1939, with an international war escalating, it was clear to the United States Congress that larger numbers of pilots might be needed for quick deployment if the country was dragged into the war.  But in this time of racial discrimination, many believed that African Americans would not be able to meet the high standards of military aviation.  Long wanting to fly but relegated to non-combat roles, a group of young African Americans were finally given their chance.  Through the Civilian Pilot Training Act, pressure from the black press and civil rights organizations, and support from First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, the 99th Pursuit Squadron of the U.S. Army Air Corps (AAC), precursor to the U.S. Air Force, was established at Tuskegee.

A P-51 Mustang, the 99th Fighter Squadron's plane of choice, affectionately called "Red Tails" for their painted red tails
P-51 Mustang, favorite plane of the Airmen, with it’s red nose and tail

Still a segregated unit as this was the best that could be hoped for at that time, the first five pilots earned their wings on March 7, 1942.  As the nation got into the war and as new classes rapidly completed the Tuskegee program, its success spurred the creation of two more segregated units – A Fighter Group and a Bombardment Group.  While they still faced racial discrimination at bases, these Airmen took to the sky and did their jobs superbly, and no one could argue with their success.  These aviation pioneers ‘conclusively demonstrated the skill, bravery, quick thinking, and coolness under the pressure demanded of a combat pilot.’  Bomber crews called them the “Red Tail Angels” because of their planes’ distinctive red tail section and because they were known never to abandon bombers in their care.

Tuskegee Airmen inspiring a living legacy

By the end of the war, 992 pilots had been trained, and in all, 10,000+ African American men and women were part of the Tuskegee experience, including mechanics, systems specialists, medical technicians, cooks, administrative clerks, photographers, flight instructors, bombardiers, and navigators – all whom proudly claim the title “Tuskegee Airmen.”

Expecting to come home from the war and enjoy the freedoms they were risking their lives to fight for abroad, the Airmen still faced racial prejudice when they returned.  They were turned away from ‘whites only’ Officer Clubs in the military, and, shameful as it was, no airline was willing to hire these black pilots; one recalled he was offered the job of janitor if he wanted it.

In 1948, President Harry S. Truman signed an executive order which ended segregation in the military; a victory for the Airmen.  Still, there would still be decades of prejudice and bias ahead of them.

In 2007, President George W. Bush invited the surviving Tuskegee Airmen to the White House and bestowed on these aviators the highest civilian award, the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor.  

In his speech, Bush declared, “… to help atone for all the unreturned salutes, and unforgivable indignities… I salute you.”

Tuskegee Airmen Congressional Gold Medal
The Tuskegee Airmen receiving a Congressional Gold Medal from President George W. Bush

Visitors to Tuskegee Airmen NHS can tour a museum in one of the hangars at Moton Field.  A film tells the story of these courageous men who proved they were equal to the task of flying when given the opportunity.  The museum also contains historic aircraft, artifacts, exhibits, and most meaningful, video recollections from the airmen themselves.

As the National Parks brochure states, the name Tuskegee is “an icon in African American history.  It is synonymous with the tireless striving of a disenfranchised people to find a place for themselves in a society that was, at best, slow to make room.”  

Better are we for visiting both of these great National Historic Sites and attempting to understand the struggles and difficulties of those who were demanding their equal rights.  We have a lot more of that to come, for next we go visit Selma, Montgomery, Birmingham, and Memphis.