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On this day in history — July 4, 1881 — Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, known today as Tuskegee University, in Tuskegee, Alabama, held its first day of class.
Booker T. Washington served as the school’s founding principal and presided over the first day of class– which, due to significant lack of resources, was held in a one-room church. The first official building on campus was erected by Washington and the students themselves, one year later.
Washington, recounting the event in his autobiography Up From Slavery said,
On the morning that the school opened, thirty students reported for admission. I was the only teacher.
The students were about equally divided between the sexes… A great many more students wanted to enter the school, but it had been decided to receive only those who were above fifteen years of age, and who had previously received some education. The greater part of the thirty were public-school teachers, and some of them were nearly forty years of age. With the teachers came some of their former pupils, and when they were examined it was amusing to note that in several cases the pupil entered a higher class than did his former teacher…
The students were making progress in learning books and in development their minds; but it became apparent at once that, if we were to make any permanent impression upon those who had come to us for training we must do something besides teach them mere books. The students had come from homes where they had had no opportunities for lessons which would teach them how to care for their bodies. With few exceptions, the homes in Tuskegee in which the students boarded were but little improvement upon those from which they had come. We wanted to teach the students how to bathe; how to care for their teeth and clothing. We wanted to teach them what to eat, and how to eat it properly, and how to care for their rooms.
Aside from this, we wanted to give them such a practical knowledge of some one industry, together with the spirit of industry, thrift, and economy, that they would be sure of knowing how to make a living after they had left us. We wanted to teach them to study actual things instead of mere books alone…
It’s truly remarkable that Washington and the increasing number of students that continued to enroll at Tuskegee built the school from the ground up.
As it happens, I recently presented a course on Booker T. Washington for PragerU. It’s my small part in trying to restore Booker T. Washington’s name and legacy among the pantheon of notable blacks in American history.