The legend and legacy of Tuskegee


“Robert R. Taylor and Tuskegee: An African-American Architect Designs for Booker T. Washington” by Ellen Weiss, NewSouth Books, 2011, 400 pp. $45.

Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Ala., has been present, though often unclearly, in American consciousness for virtually all of its 141 years.

The Institute has behaved in the classic tradition of universities, pushing the academic envelope and its traditionally African-American students to higher achievement. That it has had to do that in the face of white America pushing back, particularly in the early decades, makes its achievements more remarkable. With 3,000 students, the school is currently rated as the fifth best among southern regional colleges by U.S. News and World Report.

Until a generation ago, we saw Tuskegee University through the life of its co-founder, Booker T. Washington, but now a new fascination with Tuskegee has been sparked, perhaps by books, a play, and cinema about the heroics of the Tuskegee Airmen in WWII. The Island has been home to two of them, the late Bill McLaurin and the late Dr. Robert L. Thorne.

This year, noted architecture professor and author Ellen Weiss offers another perspective on Tuskegee Institute with her book, “Robert R. Taylor and Tuskegee: An African American Architect Designs for Booker T. Washington.” Ms. Weiss will discuss her book, with a forward by summer resident Henry Louis Gates Jr., at the West Tisbury Library on Thursday, July 5 at 5 pm. The event is free and open to the public and includes free and generally extraordinary refreshments.

Ms. Weiss’s book interweaves the life of the first academically trained African American architect, Mr. Taylor, with his life’s work – the campus of Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute. The illustrated architectural history shows how a black youth born in North Carolina shortly after the Civil War earned a professional architecture degree at MIT, then how he used his design and administrative skills to further Booker T. Washington’s agenda of community solidarity and, in defiance of expanding Jim Crow discrimination policies, the public expression of racial pride and progress.

The book also considers issues related to architectural education for African Americans at the turn of the 20th century, the white donors who funded Tuskegee’s buildings, other Tuskegee architects, and Taylor’s buildings elsewhere. Individual narratives of Taylor’s Tuskegee buildings conclude the volume.

Ms. Weiss is professor emerita at the Tulane University School of Architecture. She has taught architectural and planning history at several universities, and served on the boards of several historical architectural organizations.

Tuskegee University began life as the Tuskegee Normal School for Colored Teachers with $2,000 and a dream by freed slave Lewis Adams, and George W. Campbell, a former slaveholder, who shared a commitment to education for blacks. They consulted with former Union general Samuel C. Armstrong, then principal at Hampton Institute, who suggested they interview a young Hampton schoolteacher named Booker T. Washington to serve as Tuskegee’s principal.

Early students literally built their college’s first buildings on the ground of a former plantation purchased by Mr. Washington. Over the next 35 years, Mr. Washington guided the school to excellence. He had an eye for talent, brought in George Washington Carver, who knew a thing or two about plants, and Mr. Hayden, who clearly had an eye for design.

From that perspective, Tuskegee built itself a framework of excellence and designed a haven for excellent work.

America today is beating the bushes for heroes, leaders, and answers for our national return to excellence. As we look at the Tuskegees of our world and their success against wicked bad odds, 
the thought occurs that, once again, history has hidden the answers right in front of us.

Author’s Talk with Ellen Weiss, 5 pm, Thursday, July 5, West Tisbury Library. “Robert R. Taylor and Tuskegee: An African American Architect Designs for Booker T. Washington.” Refreshments. Free. 508-693-3366.