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’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.
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.
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.
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.