We are looking back at one of our original Good Towns, the city of Tuskegee, Alabama. Spotlighting special towns across the country, Good Towns is about the character, the history, the people and the unique things that make a town a special place. We hope you enjoy this story.
Despite a population of just under 10,000, few towns in the South have had as much of an impact on African-American history, especially in the last century. A Tuskegee native, Rosa Parks, brought the struggle of the Civil Rights movement to a national audience when she refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus. At the height of the movement, Tuskegee was part of a landmark voting rights case, Gomillion v. Lightfoot, which found the gerrymandering of districts to limit the black vote to be an unconstitutional practice.
Yet Tuskegee’s history goes much further. Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto’s expedition took him through the area in the 15th Century. Native Americans lived there first and remained until settlers arrived in the early 19th Century.
Located 40 miles east of Alabama’s capital city, Montgomery, and a short commute from Auburn University, Tuskegee retains the charm of small-town America. Yet the people the town and historic Tuskegee University have produced resonate throughout the nation – if not the world.
Booker T. Washington founded the university and George Washington Carver earned international acclaim for innovative agricultural farm science. Authors Ralph Ellison and Zora Neale Hurston shed light on the African-American experience and brought new respect for American literature. Radio personality Tom Joyner and actor Keenen Ivory Wayans came of age at Tuskegee University. Good Morning America’s Robin Roberts was born there.
The Tuskegee Airmen trained in Tuskegee and changed the perception of courage and valor during World War II. And a small band that originated at then-Tuskegee Institute emerged as one of Detroit-based Motown’s greatest rhythm and blues acts of the 20th Century. That band? The Commodores.
“This is a great historical town with a tremendous spirit,” said Mayor Tony Haygood, our tour guide for a day in Tuskegee. “What developed here in terms of education, science and medicine, music and civil rights – so much has come out of this town that has an impact on the world.”
A Real Brickhouse
In 1968, a group of freshmen at Tuskegee Institute began jamming together, creating a fusion of funk and soul that would eventually top the charts. Four years later, The Commodores were signed by Motown Records and gaining fame as the opening act for the Jackson 5. About that regal name. It was taken at random, thanks to a dictionary that opened to the perfect place when the band was stuck for ideas.
Nearly a half-century later, the group’s history is honored in an old brick building on East Martin Luther King Jr. Highway called, simply, the Commodore Museum. Open to the public during business hours Tuesday through Saturday, the museum features the band’s original stage uniforms and instruments, memorabilia and vinyl records of hit albums that produced the likes of Brickhouse, Too Hot to Trot, Three Times a Lady and Easy.
The real treasures are in the back wing, which includes a stage for rehearsal and debuts of new material, a recording studio and “The Pit,” where band members cut business deals and brainstormed tour ideas and new material.
For Johnny Bailey, the band’s former bodyguard, preserving the group’s creative refuge is a work of love. “I was just a country boy, but they trusted me to take them all over the world,” Bailey said. “Now I want to share these memories with everyone.”
Formerly, the headquarters of a construction company, owned by the current mayor’s family, and an annex of a local community college, The Commodores acquired the building after initial success at Motown. The reason, Bailey said, was practical. “Motown was so expensive. They could come here and create, do all the work, and then go back to Motown and mix it and lay it down in wax.”
Out front, a VCR plays Commodores videos from the band’s heyday, from televised appearances and concerts. Oddly enough, there’s also a video of a network special featuring country/rock crooner Kenny Rogers singing a song penned by founding member Lionel Richie, Lady. The song was a huge hit for Rogers, of course, and the Rogers’ special, with The Commodores, was filmed on the back stage of the Commodore Museum.
A Tuskegee native who left the group in 1982 to pursue a career as a solo star, Richie still owns a home near the college campus. His first visit back to the museum left him reflective.
“Lionel was like a kid again, seeing all these memories come alive,” Bailey said. “It was a fun visit, and an emotional day for both of us.”
The Center of it All
At the heart of a walkable downtown, local businesses surround a grass- and tree-lined park. An old statue commemorating the role of home-grown troops during the Civil War sits in the middle. It’s the spot to sit a spell, but the city has plans to make it even better. College students from Auburn and Tuskegee are working on a landscaping plan to enhance the square for decades to come.
Businesses range from a computer repair shop to a fashion boutique to a restaurant and a local music venue. The former movie theater houses a bank branch.
“Town Square is one of our treasures, and we want to make it the center of everything in Tuskegee,” Haygood said. The city just held its first Movie Night on The Square and plans to expand the event throughout the spring and summer.
One of a handful of local buildings on the National Register of Historic Places, the Judge Aubrey Ford Jr. Justice Center is built of sand-colored brick across from the square. Formerly the Macon County Courthouse, the justice center bustles with activity. The most notable additions are the large clock in the bell tower and the gargoyles that were part of the original phase of construction in the 19th century. These gargoyles may look menacing, but they’re considered good luck. They also serve another, more practical purpose: To direct rainwater away from the heart of the building during a storm.
A short walk from Town Square leads to the Tuskegee History Center, formerly the Tuskegee Human and Civil Rights Multicultural Center. Located on South Elm Street, the museum provides an interactive timeline from Tuskegee’s history, one that began long before man. It traces Tuskegee’s rich Native American history, the town’s founding, and early development.
Still, the centerpiece is Tuskegee’s role in the Civil Rights movement. One of the more infamous stories is told through the Tuskegee Syphilis Study Memorial, which reminds visitors of one of America’s darkest chapters. For 40 years, beginning at the height of the Depression and continuing through 1972, the government study followed the progression of untreated syphilis in rural African-Americans. Patients were provided free medical care and burials for participating, but most never knew they weren’t being treated for the disease.
Other displays recount the town and Macon County’s role in the movement, including the first African-American deputy hired in the state of Alabama in the 1950s, when Sheriff Preston Hornsby hired James Charity. A decade later, history was made again when Lucius Amerson became the first elected black sheriff in the state of Alabama since Reconstruction.
The gift shop features “Macon Makers,” which focuses on locally produced art, books, quilts, jewelry, music and food, including preserves and jams. Rick Mosley’s “Legends of the Game” is a Monopoly-styled board game that focuses on history, including professional baseball’s Negro Leagues.
Outside the museum is a small building that captivates school children. A replica of Booker T. Washington’s pre-Civil War childhood home is life-size and based on descriptions from the educator’s autobiography. It features log walls, a fireplace, a packed-earth floor, a loft, potato cellar and a wooden-shake roof.
Lifting the Veil
Washington, born into slavery and freed before his 10th birthday, established the Negro Normal School in Tuskegee in 1881. Within a few years, with appropriations from the state legislature, the school moved to an abandoned, 100-acre plantation on the edge of Tuskegee. Today, Tuskegee University is a world renowned institution of higher learning.
A monument of Washington is the focus of the center of the sprawling campus, which now has an enrollment of close to 5,000 students. The monument reads: “He lifted the veil of ignorance from his people and pointed the way to progress through education and industry.” Nearby is the Tuskegee University Chapel, the spiritual and social center of the school which has hosted U.S. Presidents and icons including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It’s now the home of the famed Tuskegee University Golden Voices concert choir. The current chapel was completed in 1969. Designed by architects Paul Rudolph of New York and Tuskegee faculty members John A. Welch and Louis Fry, it replaced the original chapel, destroyed by fire in 1957.
Across the street from the Lifting the Veil monument is the Kellogg Conference Center. A full-service hotel with more than 100 guest rooms and suites, this Georgian building is one of 11 Kellogg Centers at academic institutions in the U.S. and Europe. It includes multimedia meeting rooms, an expansive ballroom with a capacity of 385 guests and a 287-seat auditorium. It’s also a great place to stop for a meal. Dorothy’s Restaurant serves traditional Southern fare in a relaxed atmosphere from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.
At the entrance of the campus sits a gorgeous antebellum mansion. Grey Columns was designed and built under the supervision of its first owner, Harvard-educated William Varner, in 1840. It remained in the Varner family until 1974, when the National Park Service acquired it as part of the Tuskegee Institute National Site. Today, nearly two centuries after it was constructed, Grey Columns remains in pristine shape and serves as the home of the Tuskegee University president. It features Doric columns, a three-sided veranda and a cupola and a tree-covered lawn. Yes, its breathtaking.
Flying into History
They are now a part of film history, their story told and retold on screen. At the start of World War II, however, the young enlistees of the U.S. Army Air Force were like nothing seen before. More commonly known as the Tuskegee Airmen, the first African-American aviators in the nation’s military history reported to Moton Field, just outside Tuskegee, to begin training.
The bombardment group trained with North American B-25 Mitchell bombers. The 99th Fighter Squadron trained for aerial combat, and were the first to deploy overseas – North Africa in 1943 and, later, to Europe. Another fighter group flew bomber escort missions. But the plane that became the one associated with the Tuskegee Airmen was the P-51 Mustang, with tails painted red that distinguished the Alabama-based outfit from others.
What began as a military “experiment,” to see if black pilots could be trained to fly combat aircraft, is now honored at the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site. Run by the National Park Service, a hangar at Moton Field turned into a museum and classroom space provides an interactive history lesson, detailing the Tuskegee Experience, wartime exploits and the discrimination the men faced throughout the war. This living history exhibit also highlights the women who worked as mechanics, control tower operators and administrators.
Tuskegee Institute also played a role, providing a primary flight school and use of existing facilities and instructors. Tuskegee was chosen as a site because of the proximity to the university as well as a welcoming racial climate. Even in the 1940s, Tuskegee had one of the South’s highest concentration of citizens, especially African-American, with college educations.
A can’t-miss exhibit are two of the original training planes. A two-toned biplane provided basic training, but seemed outdated by the time the pilots advanced to live missions and the high-tech P-51 Mustang.
Blast from the Past, Energy for a New Generation
In some ways, a trip to Tuskegee is a trip into the past. People still greet you with a wave and a handshake. Buildings look much as they did decades ago. With a deep history, it maintains a welcoming embrace for people coming home and those just passing through.
“I tell people all the time, ‘come to Tuskegee and live for two years, and you’ll always come back home,’” Haygood said. “Tuskegee has an energy that won’t let go.”