The Civil Rights Trail, Part 2: Rosa Parks and Tuskegee

With eleven sites listed on the Civil Rights Trail, Montgomery was an excellent place in which to stage for continuing my American history lessons.  Unfortunately, with limited time, I was only able to take in one more site – the Rosa Parks Museum.  As someone who believes in “social, economic, and political equality of the sexes” (i.e., a feminist), I am drawn to heroines, and Rosa Parks certainly fit that description!

I learned at the Rosa Parks Museum that she was far from the quiet, meek, “tired old lady” that she is often portrayed to have been. Quite the contrary, the 42-year-old seamstress’ refusal to vacate her Montgomery bus seat for a white patron in December of 1955 was a calculated culmination of a decade of civil rights activism. Her act of defiance against Jim Crow era laws, in addition to those of several African American women and men before her, led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The economic impact of the boycott on Montgomery City Lines ultimately resulted in the company desegregating its buses.

I’ve mentioned it several times before in this blog, but I wanted to again mention how beneficial NPS and museum films are to the learning experience.  Historical footage augments the educational process in a way that helps put you in the shoes of the folks you are learning about.  Well-researched, typically with source documents and interviews right in the visitor center or museum (and on the website for later viewing), it’s easy to review these perspectives, compare them to your own, and start to reconcile any differences between them.  I love to read, but watching original footage and/or reenactments gives context that is sometimes hard to gain through written word alone.

I woke up and looked out the window of my Montgomery hotel room and smiled at the overcast, yet dry sky.  No more rain!  With coffee and breakfast in my belly, I headed out for the roughly 30-minute ride to Tuskegee – birthplace of Rosa Parks and home of the storied Tuskegee Airmen and the Tuskegee Institute. 

According to NPS placards and brochures for the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site, the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940, along with pressure from the black press and civil rights organizations, and support from Eleanor Roosevelt, led to the establishment of the segregated 99th Pursuit Squadron in January 1941, which was later re-designated as the 99th Fighter Squadron.  Because of the Tuskegee Institute’s successful Civilian Pilot Training Program, a climate suitable for year-round flying, and the school’s experience in conducting education in a segregated environment, Tuskegee Institute’s Moton Field became the primary training venue, and Tuskegee Army Air Field for basic and advanced training.  Click HERE for a 4-minute NPS video providing an overview of the Tuskegee Airmen.

Overview of Moton Field, home of military primary training for Tuskegee Airmen, was named after the Tuskegee Institute’s second president, Robert R. Moton. The brick hanger on the left in the photo, with the wind sock, is Hanger No. 1 and is the original hanger completed in 1941. It displays the historical training, briefing, and maintenance areas and aircraft. Hanger No. 2, on the right, was built on the location of the original hanger that was destroyed by fire in 1989, and houses a museum dedicated to telling the wartime story of the famed “Red Tail Angels.” Together, these buildings represent one of the best-curated historical sites I’ve visited this whole trip!
It’s uncanny how many people I meet with similar backgrounds to mine. The Ranger manning the visitors center in Hanger No. 1, Lori, was also a veteran and a woman biker! It was so great to talk military and motorcycles with her 😊
Almost all Tuskegee pilots were first trained in the Primary Trainer-17 (PT-17) Stearman aircraft, like this one in Hanger No. 1. A replica P-51, that they flew during World War II, is suspended from the ceiling in the museum housed in Hanger No. 2.
Of course, as a prior aviation maintainer, I was drawn to the exhibits in Hanger No. 1 about maintenance operations. I was stunned to learn that each mechanic and apprentice was responsible for buying whatever tools he or she needed to do their job. Due to wartime manpower shortages, the majority of aircraft maintainers and support personnel were women. Because this was a segregated facility, these apprentices, mechanics, truck drivers, and aircraft fuelers were African American women.
About 16,000-17,000 African American men and women were trained for service in the Army Air Corps, including mechanics, communications and electrical systems specialists, armament specialists, medical technicians, cooks, administrative clerks, parachute riggers, air traffic controllers, flight instructors, bombardiers, navigators, and others. All are known today as Tuskegee Airmen.
The Double Victory campaign sought victory against fascism abroad, and at home against racism. Black service men and women “achieved impossible feats despite demoralizing racism, violent encounters stateside, senseless inefficiencies created by segregation policies and training, housing and resources that were often substandard” (Library of Congress). In some cases, like that of WWII veteran Sgt. Isaac Woodard, not only was their honorable service disregarded, it was resented, as evidenced by a beating by South Carolina police officers that left him blind, for requesting a bathroom stop on a bus ride from Georgia to North Carolina – while he was wearing his uniform (Equal Justice Initiative).

Just a few miles down the road from Moton Field is the Tuskegee Institute National Historic Site.  Founded in 1881 as a “Normal School for Colored Teachers at Tuskegee” by former slave Lewis Adams, the Tuskegee Institute evolved from training teachers, to improving the conditions of African Americans by teaching them practical job skills, to ultimately, a university with strengths in aerospace engineering, veterinary science, and bioethics.  Visionary academics like Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver raised the Institute’s status and visibility, garnering benefactors like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller.  Unfortunately, both the George Washington Carver Museum and Booker T. Washington’s home, The Oaks, were closed for renovations the day I visited.   

Born enslaved, Booker T. Washington rose to be the first president of what is now the Tuskegee University. A man who believed in the ideals of self-sufficiency and progress, he oversaw the building of the president’s house, known as The Oaks. “Here students applied their skills to one of the most visible structures on Tuskegee. From designing the house to making the bricks to crafting the furniture, students and faculty helped build … and maintain The Oaks” (NPS brochure). A social hub for the community, Washington lived there from 1900 until his death in 1915, and his widow, Margaret, remained in the house until her death in 1925. -NPS website

The Oaks is right on the Tuskegee campus, a thriving private, historically black land grant university.  A little dejected by the closed museum and house, I decided it was time for lunch and stopped a student passing by for a restaurant recommendation.  Without hesitating, she pointed me towards the American Deli in downtown Tuskegee.  An establishment that serves good food usually has a wait, so I settled into a table after placing my order and struck up a conversation with the gentlemen the next table over.  A semi-retired truck driver, we passed the time by sharing road stories and favorite food stops!  I can’t remember what I ate at the deli, but I have no trouble recalling that conversation and a shared love for the road.

“First published in 1936, the ‘Green Book’ was the brainchild of a Harlem-based postal carrier named Victor Hugo Green. Like most African Americans in the mid-20th century, Green had grown weary of the discrimination blacks faced whenever they ventured outside their neighborhoods. Rates of car ownership had exploded in the years before and after WWII, but the lure of the interstate was also fraught with risk for African Americans. ‘White Only’ policies meant that black travelers often couldn’t find safe places to eat and sleep, and so-called ‘Sundown Towns’ – municipalities that banned blacks after dark – were scattered across the country.” – History.com website

Later, as I rolled down the highway, free to take this epic road trip, I recalled a publication I had seen at one of the giftshops, The Green Book.  It wasn’t that long ago that not everyone was welcome to join in this all-American past-time seeped in car culture.  In fact, one of the last editions of the travel guide to assist African Americans in finding food, lodging, and fueling options in a segregated nation started by Victor Hugo Green, was published in the same decade in which I was born.  Another piece of history to contemplate as I make my way eastward.

2 thoughts on “The Civil Rights Trail, Part 2: Rosa Parks and Tuskegee

Add yours

  1. Hi. This is Maurice. We met in Montgomery, Alabama at the Rosa Parks museum, and I gave you a ride back to your motorcycle. I was just thinking about you and hoping that you are doing well, and traveling safe.

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    1. I remember you and the great conversation! That was some of the worse rain I’ve ridden thru the whole trip, so thanks again for the lift. I hope your family event was fun! Happy holidays and thanks for following my journey 😀

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