The multiple facets of Alabama’s Tuskegee city


Plantation slaves gathered outside their huts in Virginia. PHOTO | WORLD HISTORY ARCHIVE

Tuskegee is a city in Macon County, in the south-eastern state of Alabama, United State.

The name “Tuskegee” comes from the Spanish “Tasquiqui” which came from the Muskogee word “Taskeke,” a name of a Creek settlement at this site, meaning “warriors.”

The Creek people had long occupied this area, including a settlement known as Taskigi Town. After Congress passed the Indian Removal Act of 1830 in furtherance of President Andrew Jackson’s goals, most of the Creek bands were removed from their homelands in the southeast to Indian Territory west of the Mississippi River.

Tuskegee was founded and laid out in 1833 by General Thompson Simpson Woodward, a Creek War veteran under Andrew Jackson. It was later incorporated as a city in 1843.

Pioneer white planters and other migrants moved into the area, mostly from eastern Southern states. The planters brought or purchased enslaved Africans to clear woods and develop cotton plantations.

The invention of the cotton gin had made short-staple cotton profitable to process and it became the chief commodity crop of the Deep South through the 19th century.

Short-staple cotton could be cultivated in the upland areas of Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas. Designated as the county seat of rural Macon County, Tuskegee developed as its only city.

In 1881, the young Booker T. Washington was hired to develop the Tuskegee Normal School for Coloured Teachers on the grounds of a former plantation.

Over the decades, the programmes were expanded, and the facility was renamed the Tuskegee Institute. Later still, graduate courses were added, and the institute became Tuskegee University.

As one of the leaders of the Black Community, Washington wanted to create a place where Blacks could learn the skills that would provide them with expertise in the so-called “negro jobs.”

He felt very strongly that the White power structure would continue to keep Blacks out of most professions and wanted Blacks to excel in their designated jobs and become self-reliant.

Tuskegee would become one of the first Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU’s) built across the country.

From the late 1800s to the late 1900s, HBCUs thrived and provided refuge from laws and public policy that prohibited Black Americans from attending most colleges and universities.

HBCUs provided undergraduate training for 75 per cent of Blacks holding a doctorate degree, 75 per cent of all Black officers in the armed forces, and 80 per cent of all Black federal judges.

Legal segregation had prevented Blacks from attending universities in the South, while quotas restricted their entry into universities in the North. Today Tuskegee University is a centre of excellence for African American education.

The infamous Tuskegee Syphilis took place there for 40 years. In 1932, the United States Public Health (UPHS), predecessor to the CDC, began the “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male”.

The study began with 600 Black men, 399 with syphilis, a debilitating sexually transmitted disease. Over the next four decades these men would be told that they were being treated and given medicine for “bad blood.”

The truth of the matter is they received no treatment whatsoever, even though penicillin became available as an effective treatment for syphilis 15 years later. The researchers withheld the drug and watched as the men died or were ravaged by the effects of untreated syphilis.

In popular narrative, many Blacks mistakenly believe, today, that the 600 men were injected with something bad (syphilis) that made them sick, when, in reality, the 399 men who had the disease were denied something good (a dose of penicillin) that would have healed them.

Even many who have the right details learned the wrong lesson from that shameful episode in American medical history.

Today, instead of rejecting vaccines and new therapeutics that are routinely used to treat and cure a majority of the population, Tuskegee should have taught Black people to make a simple demand: “give me whatever you are giving the White folks.”

As WWII raged in Europe and the Pacific, the 1941 Pearl Harbour attack pulled the United States into the war. The Army Air Corps (AAC) quickly realized that it needed trained pilots and contracted with private schools to fill the need.

Tuskegee was selected as the sole flight training school for Black pilots. Tuskegee’s President Dr. Frederick D. Patterson along with George L. Washington, Director of the Department of Mechanical Industries pushed to get the designation of Tuskegee.

Over 1,000 Black airmen trained at Tuskegee and later gained the moniker Tuskegee Airmen. They were placed in segregated units in the war. The first of these was the 99th Pursuit Squadron, later renamed the 99th Fighter Squadron.

Alabama was a highly segregated state and just getting to Tuskegee by train was a fraught journey for these men who would become heroes during the war.

Despite this treatment, the Tuskegee Airmen distinguished themselves in the war, bringing a great deal of pride to the Black community, and leading a strong movement to demand better treatment back home after helping to win the war.

Following the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957, activists made progress in registering Black voters in the city.

Black people in Tuskegee and other Alabama cities had largely been disenfranchised after the passage of a new constitution in 1901, which included requirements that were discriminatory in practice, including a poll tax and a literacy test.

In 1972, Johnny Ford was elected the first Black mayor and served six consecutive terms. The first Black woman mayor Lucenia Williams Dunn was elected in 2000.

The history of Tuskegee is a mixed bag of failure and success in the journey of equal opportunity. It is a story that gives us hope in a world of injustice and intolerance.