A lot to absorb in Tuskegee, AL

For a small town in Southern Alabama, Tuskegee evokes a lot of feelings and opinions. For most people, it only means one thing: the Tuskegee experiment.

From 1932 to 1972, the U.S. Public Health Service conducted an experiment to study untreated syphilis in men. Looking back on it, it was a shocking experiment that led to the Institutional Review Board when working with human subjects.

But Tuskegee is also the site for two national park units, which is why I’m here.

Tuskegee Institute National Historic Site encompassed almost the whole campus of (now) Tuskegee University. It also includes The Oaks, home of Booker T. Washington, founder of the Tuskegee Institute in 1881 and George Washington Carver museum–see above.

Most of the old buildings on campus were constructed by students. Booker T. Washington believed in teaching practical skills as well as academic subjects. So students made the bricks used in the buildings, did the workworking, and cooked the meals in the school kitchens.

Today, you can wander about the campus and look at the outside of these buildings. A tour of The Oaks is available at set times. Sometimes it takes the ranger a while to get to her tours, something which I haven’t usually experienced at other National Park sites. You can only get into Washington’s house on a tour, so the 9 am tour visitors waited patiently.

And, yes, you can visit the Legacy Museum to learn more about the Tuskegee experiments.

Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site is only a couple of miles down the road from Tuskegee Institute. The two sites are connected in history.

In 1941, the Army Air Corps looked to expand its reserve of military pilot and contracted with civilian flight school. Since Tuskegee Institute had a good civilian flight school, it was selected as a primary flight school for the army.  At this time, there weren’t any black military flight pilots. Some felt that African-American men weren’t suited for the rigor and discipline of flying.

But of course, they proved that black men could fly with distinction. All support personnel, such as mechanics, radio operators and nurses, are considered Tuskegee Airmen.

When I visited the site, yesterday, only one ranger was on duty. He kept his friendly demeanor as he answered visitor questions, opened the auditorium and started the movie, unlocked the door to the control tower and even staffed the bookstore.

One hanger is staffed by a civilian worker who didn’t know much. So all the questions were referred to the ranger. The site also has a Skyway Club, the old officers’ club, which has been refurbished but is still closed. There just isn’t enough staff.

What a shame that this NPS site isn’t given the funding to properly interpret the Tuskegee experience! If it sounds like I’ve complained before (and I have), it’s because I’m visiting small historic sites. We can’t forget them.


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