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Where the past is present
History is rich at the Tuskegee Institute National Historic Site.
MICHAEL SCHUMAN | Special to The Roanoke Times
The George Washington Carver Museum houses the famed botanist’s lab but is largely devoted to telling the story of Booker T. Washington.
MICHAEL SCHUMAN | Special to The Roanoke Times
The Oaks was built by Tuskegee students and was the founder’s home as well as a setting for official receptions.
If you go
Tuskegee Institute National Historic Site, including the George Washington Carver Museum, is open daily, 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., except for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. Guided tours of The Oaks are offered, times depending on visitation; contact the site in advance or check at the visitor center at the Carver Museum for a schedule. Tours begin at the Carver Museum.
Guided campus tours are also offered, times depending on visitation. However, a self-guided tour is detailed on the official park brochure. Several buildings, such as Thrasher Hall (the science building), Tantum Hall and the Milbank Agricultural Hall, where Carver developed all that peanut potpourri, date from the administration of founder Booker T. Washington.
Admission to all parts of the national historic site is free.
Information: Tuskegee Institute National Historic Site, 1212 West Montgomery Road, Tuskegee Institute, Ala. 36087, 334-727-3200, www.nps.gov/tuin
Lodging in Tuskegee: Tuskegee University Kellogg Conference Center, 1 Nurses Home Road (on campus just inside Lincoln Gate), Tuskegee, doubles; $85, 334-727-3000 www.kelloggcenter.net
Lodging in Auburn, about 20 miles away by Interstate 85 (Note: Rates might increase during college event weekends.): Econo-Lodge, 2145 South College Street, doubles: $55-$65, 334-826-8900 www.econoauburn.com, and The Crenshaw Guest House (six-room bed and breakfast), 371 North College Street, doubles: $85-$125, includes full breakfast, 800-950-1131, 334-821-1131 www.auburnalabamalodging.com
Sunday, February 10, 2013
Only one college or university is designated a national historic site by Congress, and it is not Harvard or Yale or Princeton. It is Tuskegee University in Alabama.
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 black four-star general.
The famed Tuskegee Airmen of World War II trained at nearby Moton Field.
At the time, a large percentage of the white population claimed that black Americans did not have the basic intelligence to succeed at military aviation. Approximately 1,000 black aviators, of whom roughly 250 were Tuskegee students, served proudly during the war. Their unit 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 the campus’ main entrance, the Lincoln Gates, is likely the most famous statue, the Booker T. Washington monument, an elaborate portrayal of the dignified and proud Washington raising a 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 receiver to hear a tape 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 that black and white can coexist peacefully?
It was Washington who lured Carver here in 1896. Carver planned on staying just a few years but remained until his death in 1943, spending his Tuskegee tenure teaching, researching and advocating alternative agriculture practices.
Carver’s keen understanding of agriculture permitted him to rescue Southern soil ravaged by the over-cultivation 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 videotape one hears an actor repeating Carver’s 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. Inside are the accouterments of any good scientist: 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 Movable School, a motorized truck and the keystone of Tuskegee’s extension service for the rural farmers of Alabama. The staff of the agricultural school on wheels preached the doctrines of self-sufficiency and self-reliance, and taught Carver’s then-groundbreaking ideas in agriculture and domestic services.
The list of peanut byproducts concocted by 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 such as peanut shaving cream, peanut paints and wood stains, and peanut axle grease. In total, Carver’s Tuskegee labs concocted about 300 peanut products.
A Victorian mansion
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 no shotgun shack. It is 15 rooms of heavy and dark Victoriana with lace curtains on windows, and murals of European landscapes painted on the walls. 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 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 wood crafting offered their hands-on expertise, while math majors calculated dimensions. Mainly because of inexpensive student labor, Brandyburg said, The Oaks was built for a very affordable cost of roughly $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 New York in November 1915, Washington was rushed back to his Tuskegee home. Less than eight hours later in an upstairs bedroom, he died as he wished, in the land where he felt he belonged.
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