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Booker T Washington button. FROM THE COLLECTION OF LON ELLIS.

When Booker T Washington came to Alabama, he saw how poor black families were living in poverty and ignorance, sleeping and eating is little cabins. He realized that the only way blacks would ever achieve economic independence, racial solidarity, and self-respect would be through self-improvement and agricultural advancement. So, in 1881 he helped to found the Tuskegee Normal School for ColoredTeachers. This school started as a ‘School Farm’ educating students about agriculture and farming. The school quickly grew to 54 acres with 400 students teaching practical skills such as carpentry, brickmaking, shoemaking, printing and cabinetmaking In 1892, he established an annual Negro Farmers' Conference in order to bring poor black farm families to Tuskegee Institute as a way to educate them on ways to improve their health, become better farmers, and improve upon their home life. This was also the genesis of black extension activities such as the agricultural experiment station, farmer institutes, farmers’ county fairs, extension agents, movable schools, farm newspapers and other types of agriculture publications.

At the first conference, 400 people “of all grades and conditions” came to the conference where they spent time talking about their issues and also working to finding possible solutions to their problems. The mandate from the conference to all Southern blacks was to urge them to buy land and cultivate it thoroughly, to raise food supplies, build multi-room homes, extend the length of school terms, pay more attention to leaders especially ministers and teachers, stay out of debt, avoid lawsuits, and to treat women better. These declarations were published each year by the conference and were posted on the wall in black homes in the South where they used them for daily guidance.

These conferences continued to grow in attendance and in sophistication. It became an annual homecoming for farmers. Washington and his conferences got a lot of publicity in the newspapers for his “Tuskegee Idea” which discussed how blacks were making progress in the South. This publicity allowed Washington to gain in power and influence around the country with northern philanthropists and other blacks. Andrew Carnegie, amongh others was a strong financial supporter of the Institute. 

While blacks experienced real progress in many areas of agriculture, land ownership, and self-respect, Washington was quick to point out that his annual conferences had the indirect influence in bringing about better relations between blacks and whites. Washington died in 1915 and the direction of the school changed due to World War I. Many blacks abandoned their agriculture lifestyles and migrated from the South to industrialized sections of the country particularly the North.

Tuskegee Institute was declared a National Historic Site in 1965.

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