It was Benjamin Mays who best described what Tuskegee meant to me when he said, “A college must be judged not only be excellent teachers, but by the spirit and philosophy which permeate it from top to bottom.”
“The Best College” report on the Internet said that current students at Tuskegee believe that the college is “totally lacking in distractions for students.” Translation: “There is nothing to do on weekends.”
Let me set the record straight. I can say to these students that they are missing the fun which we knew. Those were the days it did not take glitter and night lights to give us pleasure. We pooled our pennies and nickels — few students had dimes, quarters and dollars — and called downtown to order half a barbecued chicken to be delivered to our door for 50 cents. We registered for eighteen to twenty-two units each quarter. We had jobs for four-to-five hours a day on campus. We studied during the required study hours — which began at dark because we were not permitted outside during week nights. We enjoyed the privilege of being on campus, and we thought it was irresponsible and dishonorable not to graduate in four years or less.
On weekends, we rewarded ourselves. Friday evenings, we dated a little. Women played bid whist in their residence halls. We were treated to cultural activities on Saturday evening, usually followed by dancing in the basement of the dining hall. Surreptitiously, we competed to see who was most original in performing the “hully gully,” similar to this generation’s “electric slide.”
We had nothing, but we had everything. I have boasted that Tuskegee Institute, now Tuskegee University, is the place where I received my real education, despite the fact that I received full scholarships and studied at Columbia University in New York, was the first Black Ph.D. at Florida State University on a teaching scholarship, and received scholarships to three postdoctoral summer sessions at Harvard. I hope I have upheld the standards instilled by some of my great mentors, who cared so much about my progress and whose faces and personalities shall forever remain deeply imprinted in my memory.
Why? Because they challenged and confronted us; allowed us to rub shoulders with accomplished people who looked like us; never accepted mediocrity from us; but most of all, taught us [as if they were] eagles teaching their young to fly for the first time. They lovingly pushed us out of the nest to determine if we could, fly — and if we faltered they swooped down to lift us up. History can never erase the profound legacy that a caring role model hands to a mentee.
When Booker T. Washington opened these doors on July 4, 1881, he had thirty Black men and women who gathered to become teachers. It is serendipitous that the campus doors opened on Independence Day.
Maybe it was also fortuitous, for indeed, Tuskegee has delivered personal independence to many Black Americans, as well as non-Blacks, Booker T. knew that he had a job much bigger than he was recruited to perform, and he wasted no time enacting his vision. A year later, in 1882, he purchased a 100-acre abandoned plantation to form the nucleus of this university. His vision was to build a facility to provide quality education for Black people and to teach them to become independent. He had sparse resources, but he obviously had vision, courage and will — and did it all “on a shoestring.”
What evolved was more than just a place to train teachers. One hundred fifteen years later, forty-five bachelor’s degrees and twenty-one master’s degrees are offered in arts and sciences, agriculture and home economics, business, education, engineering and architecture, nursing and allied health. The distinguished doctorate of veterinary medicine competes with the best in the nation, attracting people of all races and nationalities.
Tuskegee was, and still is, a home away from home — where students compete in class, develop ethnic pride and a sense of belonging, and develop an appreciation for cultural arts. Education at Tuskegee laid the foundation for us to graduate and set sails to span the widest ocean, to climb the highest mountain’ to walk side-by-side with professional cohorts worldwide and conquer space, medicine, time, and technology. In addition to a foundation, this great university gave us strength, courage, hope and eagerness to stand tall and walk shoulder-to-shoulder with the mightiest kings and queens. At Tuskegee there was a thread of continuity –connecting home, the Black community, church and the university. It was a chain, not to be broken.
While at school here, I was required to take “Negro History.” Thank God for that requirement. I remember distinctly standing up in class to challenge my professor on the relevance of that course. In retrospect, I am grateful that I had the privilege of learning my unfiltered history. Among other things I learned that America has a duty and a destiny to fulfill the needs of its people — including its Black people, who, for so many generations were treated like mindless slaves. I am not supposed to be a university president in California. No one ever told me to aspire to become president in the largest and finest higher education system in the world. Tuskegee did not feed me a loaf of bread. Tuskegee taught me to fish.
COPYRIGHT 1996 Cox, Matthews & Associates
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com