No trip to Alabama would be complete without a stop in Tuskegee, Alabama. Evolving from the Negro Normal School in Tuskegee to Tuskegee Institute to Tuskegee University, the school and namesake community have had an intertwining history of great achievement and intellectual prosperity. Under the leadership of Booker T. Washington, Tuskegee rose to national prominence. StoryCorps Griot participant Jimmy Johnson described the Tuskegee community and legacy by comparing Booker T. Washington to the other great luminary of his era, W.E.B. DuBois. DuBois was committed to fighting for total equality, including the right to vote, in the courts. DuBois argued the legal system was the best path. Washington, on the other hand rationalized that if African Americans could achieve intellectual and economic success through ownership and prosperity in business, science, and the trades, equality could not be denied; you cannot be denied what you have achieved yourself. Johnson explains that Washington was saying: succeed intellectually and financially and they will beg you for your vote. Communities like Tuskegee and Mound Bayou, Mississippi are bold examples. It could be argued that history proved that both ideologies were part and parcel of the same path.
Our brief time in Tuskegee was marked by stories of day to day experiences that proved the lasting legacy of Booker T. Washington. The stories spoke to the many beautiful complexities and great debates waged in the African American community. Participants shared stories reflecting perceptions of success, work ethic, youth apathy, ‘passing’, class divisions, integration’s effect on community values and prosperity, as well as attitudes toward skin color, complexion, and beauty within the Black community. Tuskegee is now, and always has been a proud oasis blossoming with rigorous inquiry and boundless achievement.