16 October 2009

Literary Landmarks of the Southern United States, #3 Tuskegee, Alabama

Booker T. Washington, the founder of Tuskegee Institute, later university, lifts the veil from a slave's head.

In Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1952), the narrator states:

'[I]n my mind's eye I see the bronze statue of the college Founder, the cold father symbol, his hands outstretched in the breathtaking gesture of lifting a veil that flutters in hard, metallic folds above the face of a kneeling slave; and I am standing puzzled, unable to decide whether the veil is really being lifted, or lowered more firmly in place; whether I am witnessing a revelation or a more efficient blinding.'

The plaque below is not in Tuskeegee but in Piedmont Park, Atlanta, Georgia, and reads:

'Booker T. Washington 1856–1915. Former slave, Principal of Tuskeegee Institute, and author of Up from Slavery, Washington delivered the Atlanta Exposition Address on Sept. 18, 1895, at this site, the former auditorium of the Cotton States and International Exposition. Washington delivered this address at the Exposition's Inauguration before a segregated audience, and in an unprecedented departure from regional custom, he shared the platform with John Collier, President of the Exposition. In 1894 Washington had joined Collier and other supporters of the Exposition in an appearance before the house Committee on Appropriations. Together they secured a $200,000 appropriation from Congress. In addition to serving as a lobbyist for the Exposition, Washington was also an Exposition commissioner and supervised the construction of the Negro Building, the Expositon's site for African American exhibitions formerly located near the 10th Street entrance to Piedmont Park. An alumnus of Hampton Institute and President of the National Negro Business League, Washington became a national leader because of the interracial compromise he proposed in the Atlanta Exposition address.'

Washington later lived at The Oaks, a house on the campus built in 1899 from bricks made at the Institute and designed by Robert R. Taylor. He lived there with his third wife, Margaret Murray Washington, until his death in 1915. Margaret continued to live there until her death in 1925.

Ralph Ellison, the author of Invisible Man (1952), began his studies here and to make ends meet worked in the bakery at Tomkins Hall.

Ellison met the writer Albert Murray while working at the Hollis Burke Frissell Library.

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