Our summer workshop got off to a great start this week with our drive down to Tuskegee. We stopped in Selma and had a chance to walk over the historic Edmund Pettus Bridge. The Interpretative Center in Lowndes was a highlight of the drive. The well-designed exhibits chronicle the march and the tent city in a powerful way. Our goals for this week’s seminar are to plan the humanities course in the fall and to research the Washington-Holtzclaw connection in the Tuskegee Archives.
In today’s session, we spent most of the day immersed in the archives at Tuskegee. Dana Chandler, university archivist at Tuskegee, provided us with a helpful orientation to archival studies and then brought out the boxes with material his team had uncovered related to Holtzclaw. Some of the photos were familiar, as these were the original images that Washington had sent to Holtzclaw to use in his autobiography, but some were photos we have never seen of BTW’s landmark visit to Utica in 1908. The Tuskegee team also uncovered letters between Washington and Holtzclaw, along with letters between George Washington Carver and Holtzclaw! One of our favorites was from 1937 where Holtzclaw wrote to Carver after the latter was unable to attend the annual Farmer’s Conference that year due to illness. In the letter, he notes that a oak tree was planted on campus in his honor. Our team now has a mission to uncover which of the oaks on campus is the George Washington Carver tree! Early lines are favoring a tree next to the library or one behind the old high school.
This was our tour day, with an in-depth look at the various Tuskegee museums. We started our day at the Oaks, Booker T. Washington’s expansive home on campus. Now maintained by the National Park Service, the home is decorated in period furnishings. Viewing BTW’s second floor office, furnished with his original desk and chair, gave the team a glimpse into his daily life. Even the chair pointed to his mission, as it was an elaborately carved oriental chair given as a gift by the grateful parents of a Japanese student. Washington recruited international students to study at Tuskegee during a time when Asian immigrants were often not welcome in the US. The George Washington Carver museum sparked many conversations with the team about the possibilities of bringing a similar museum space to our campus.
We visited the BTW Monument, also known as the Lifting the Veil statue, for a group photo. Dana had shown us a photo in the archives the day before of the installation of the statue. To be in the same space as that historic photo was impressive. Dana then led us over to the Tuskegee Chapel to visit the famous singing windows. While Dr. Cooper investigated the stage and choir room, Sharon and Apryl treated us to some beautiful singing of their own. All were impressed with their angelic voices resonating through the chapel — the acoustics in that space are fantastic! Happily while we were there, Dr. Wayne Barr, director of Tuskegee’s Golden Voices choir, joined us for a surprise visit.
Lunch at the Kellogg was a real treat — Wednesday is soul food day — and Dana’s billing of the chicken as some of the best you’ll ever put in your mouth proved to be more than hyperbole. It was pretty darn tasty! In the afternoon, we toured the rest of the campus along with the Tuskegee Airmen museum (though as Dana was careful to point out, the actual site of the airfield is several miles north).
The day began with a morning session dedicated to archival preservation, and focused on ways in which we might be able to develop the archival collection on our campus. Dana surprised us with a gift of copies of the historic photos from BTW’s visit to Utica to jump start our collection back at Utica. He also shared with us ways to fund archival preservation, always important in an environment where archives might not be on the top of the institution’s budgetary priority list.
During our lunch break, Dana took us to see the Sharpe Field, the original Tuskegee Airmen training field, along with a visit to an original Rosenwald school. This school is next door to Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church, the site of Oak Tree where about 50 church members were recruited for a “bad blood” study, not knowing that they were actually denied treatment for syphilis as part of the infamous U.S. Public Health Study of Untreated Syphilis in Negro Males in Macon County, Alabama. The men would gather at this tree to meet with the nurse on a regular basis.
In our afternoon session, we planned out our course for the fall. The class, Introduction to the Humanities, will be a team-taught course focused on Holtzclaw and Black rural education. Over the 16 weeks of the course, students will learn about the historical context in which Holtzclaw operated, along with an exploration of African American autobiography, an in-depth look at the Jubilee Singers and Black spirituals, the function of the Black press in education, Black photography of the early 1900s, and an exploration of the connections between the Holtzclaw era and the Civil Rights movement. A highlight of the course is the opportunity for each student to do original research in the Humanities. Students will select an original research project and will work under the direction of one of our Humanities team members to deliver the project. We hope to present the students’ work at an upcoming undergraduate research symposium.
We began our day early in order to spend some time in Montgomery visiting the Civil Rights Memorial at the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Rosa Parks museum. Visiting the memorial at the SPLC is a moving experience, with the names of those who lost their lives during the struggle engraved chronologically in the stone. The memorial was designed by Vietnam Veterans Memorial designer Maya Lin and, just like the memorial in D.C., invites visitors to run their hands along the names. When we take students to Tuskegee, we will be sure to stop here. We’re thinking about assigning each student one of the names engraved in the monument as a mini-research project, in order for each to have a more personal connection when they arrive. The Rosa Parks museum was also a treat, as the well-designed exhibit spaces place the event in its historical context. The “time machine” in the children’s wing is cute — and helps visitors understand what led up to Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
We ended our workshop with a lively lunch discussion at Weidmann’s in downtown Meridian, billed as the oldest restaurant in Mississippi. Over catfish, shrimp and grits, and fried green tomatoes, we made plans for how we might bring our Tuskegee experience to Utica. Stay tuned!