Tuskegee National Historic Sites
Tuskegee National Historic Site
at Tuskegee, Alabama
(Prepared by the National Park Service)
The Oaks - Home of Booker T. Washington
In 1899 Booker T. Washington was already famous. Eighteen years had passed since he had begun his life's work establishing Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute. Under Washington's leadership, the Institute was well on the way to achieving national and international recognition. Four years had passed since he delivered the Cotton States and International Exposition speech propelling him into the national limelight. Washington was 43 years old and had endured the sadness of burying two wives, Fannie Smith and Olivia Davidson, and the joy of the birth of three children, Portia, Booker T. Jr., and Ernest Davidson. He had taken as his third wife Margaret Murray. The pattern of his life was established. Tuskegee Institute was never far from his thoughts. Speeches, travel, writing, and dedications of one new building after another were commonplace events. Yet in 1899, Washington did something he had never done before - he built a house. Since home reveals much about its occupants we can carefully read between the lines and perhaps see another side of the man and his family.
The Oaks, as the home became known, was appropriately built of Institute bricks made by students and faculty. It was adjacent to the campus but on property owned by Washington. In Up From Slavery he tells us that he was able to spend only an average of six months out of each year in his Tuskegee home. This time was special and refreshing, a time when he could "get the most solid rest and recreation." A parlor and dining room were on the first floor and after the evening meal the family would often read or take turns telling stories. Washington wrote, "to me there is nothing on earth equal to that." Sadly he also admits that "the thing in my life which brings me the keenest regret is that my work keeps me for so much of the time away from my family, where of all places in the world, I delight to be."
The restored interior of the Oaks hints at the broad interests of the Washington family. Above the gilded picture molding of three rooms on the first floor are murals, which were painted in 1908 by European artist E. W. Borman. The theme of the murals is reflective of European countryside and seashore, perhaps reminiscent of the Washington's train trip through Europe when the Oaks was under construction. The musician in the family was Portia, an accomplished pianist. Mr. Washington often requested Portia to play after dinner or for the many visitors to the home. Leisure items seen in the parlor, such as dominoes, table games and a stereopticon provide a glimpse of activities enjoyed by Booker Jr. and Ernest Davidson Washington.
In the den on the second floor, functional furniture, built by Institute students decorate the rear of the room, while eloquent hand-carved furniture of the Orient flavors other sections of the room. Booker T. Washington's certificate from Hampton Institute, along with a photo of the graduating class of 1875, compliments one wall of the study. Photos of two United States Presidents, Board of Trustees members, the King and Queen of Denmark, Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, and others accent the remaining walls.
It is obvious that Washington's ties to the South were strong. The South was where he was born and educated; it was the place he called home. When ill in New York City, he insisted upon dying in the South, clinging to life until he reached the Oaks. There on November 14, 1915 his earthly journey up from slavery ended. Three days later he was buried in the campus cemetery.
As you leave the Oaks stop and take a good look at the house. Think about what Washington said: "The actual sight of a first class house that a Negro has built is ten times more potent than pages of discussion about a house that he ought to build, or perhaps could build."
The Oaks was restored in 1980 by the National Park Service. Tours of the Oaks begin at the George Washington Carver Museum and are provided by National Park Rangers every hour, 9:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m., seven days a week.
George Washington Carver Museum
The Early Museum - 1938 to 1977
For more than forty years Dr. George Washington Carver labored at Tuskegee Institute. He never ceased efforts to improve the living conditions and surroundings of rural and farm people - particularly those who lived in the South - and to extract from nature through scientific research those elements and resources which could be made useful for the benefit of mankind. Many honors came to him during his lifetime, but none gave him more genuine pleasure and satisfaction than his own museum. It was always his wish that everything he did would be available to the public for the general good of all.
The George Washington Carver Museum was authorized by the trustees of Tuskegee Institute in 1938 at the request of President Frederick D. Patterson. The Museum, formerly the school laundry, housed Dr. Carver's extensive collections of native plants, minerals, birds and vegetables; his products from the peanut, sweet potato and clays; and his numerous paintings, drawings, and textile art. The Museum was formally dedicated by Mr. and Mrs. Henry Ford in 1941. In January 1943 Dr. Carver died and was laid to rest in the Campus Cemetery.
In 1947 a fire caused great loss in the Museum. Fortunately, many of Dr. Carver's products were not seriously damaged. However only a few of his paintings were saved, those mostly damaged by smoke and water. When the building was renovated in 1951, it was enlarged to include a basement exhibit area. With a total area of 13,000 square feet, it became a general repository for historic and modern treasures donated to Tuskegee Institute or removed from campus buildings. The Museum also held an extensive collection of African crafts and artifacts. Over 300 bound volumes and rare pamphlets of south, central and west coast Africa, and more than 1000 photographs of life in Ghana and Nigeria were included.
The Museum Today - 1977 to Present
Tuskegee Institute National Historic site was authorized in 1974 and established on November 13, 1977. The George Washington Carver Museum, along with the Booker T. Washington home "The Oaks," was then deeded to the people of the United States.
Both the Museum and the Oaks were closed to the public in February 1980 to undergo restoration and refurbishing. Restoration was the focus for the Museum's exterior. The building's interior was gutted and rebuilt to house exhibits, artifact storage space, staff offices, an auditorium where audiovisual programs are conducted, and an elevator for disabled persons.
The main exhibit area of the Museum is divided into two sections. One section focuses on the comprehensive career of Dr. Carver. Within this area is some of his laboratory equipment, including salvaged parts of discarded equipment with which he set up his first laboratory. Dr. Carver had begun his research with only one true piece of scientific equipment: a microscope. Also included are samples of peanut and sweet potato products. The exhibits of his paintings, embroidery and needlework interpret the artistic talents of Dr. Carver. On display are plaques, medals and artistic work created in tribute to Dr. Carver.
The second section of the Museum leads the visitor through the growth and development of Tuskegee Institute, founded in 1881, to the present day Tuskegee University. Through photographs and artifacts, the exhibits outline the school's accomplishments through extension work and the compilation of statistics on Black life are interpreted.
Returning visitors from the 1940's through the 1970's will note a smaller number of artifacts on display. it has not been necessary to exhibit several hundred extra items in order to provide a comprehensive interpretive experience. Items not on display are stored in a controlled environment. Ownership of a large selection of African artifacts formerly displayed in the Museum was retained by Tuskegee University.
The Museum is open from 9:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. daily. Questions and comments are welcomed and assistance is cheerfully rendered.
Other Sites in the Area
While in the Tuskegee area, visit historic Moton Field, where the Tuskegee Airmen trained, and the General Daniel "Chappie" James Center.
Tuskegee is located 38 miles east of Montgomery, Alabama and approximately 130 miles southwest of Atlanta, Exit 38 off Interstate 85.