Tuskegee and Beyond

After a wonderful breakfast at the Mants’s home (pancakes, sausage, grits, etc.), we left Lowndes County on Thursday morning and drove east to Tuskegee, where we spent the final two days of our trip with movement veteran George Paris. Tuskegee is one of the most historically rich cities in Alabama, and George’s personal connection to the sites we visited helped bring them to life for us in an unforgettable way. But the best part of all was simply hearing his own stories about his movement work, and about growing up in Tuskegee.

George gave us a personal tour of the campus of his alma mater, Tuskegee University. Founded by Booker T. Washington in 1881 to educate former slaves, Tuskegee has grown into one of the country’s best colleges, and has long been a center for educational and political advancement. We visited the School of Agriculture and the School of Veterinary Medicine, where we saw the operating rooms and had a chance to watch a group of students put an IV into a calf. We also toured Booker T. Washington’s home, the Oaks, which was built by student labor and used as a “showcase” to demonstrate that African American were capable of mastering the same skills and knowledge as whites, if only given an opportunity to get an education.

I was particularly excited to visit Moton Field, which served during World War II as a training site for the Tuskegee Airmen. The National Park Service museum at Moton Field is based heavily on oral history interviews with former pilots, mechanics, and flight instructors, so between all the personal stories and George’s own memories of the field, we walked away with a clear sense of the importance of what happened on this patch of ground.

The last museum on our trip was the Tuskegee Human & Civil Rights Multicultural Center, which tells the story of the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study, one the greatest human rights violations in recent American history. For forty years (from 1932 to 1972), the US Public Health Service and Tuskegee University tracked the progression of syphilis in hundreds of impoverished black sharecroppers from the surrounding countryside. Drawn into participation by promises of free health care, the men involved were never informed that they had syphilis, nor were they treated for it, despite the fact that an effective cure was available. They were left to suffer for the cause of science, unknowingly infecting their wives and children. Surviving participants ultimately won a class action lawsuit against the US government and an official apology from President Bill Clinton, and forced significant changes in the regulation of clinical studies. But the impact of the study lingers in continued distrust of public health efforts & the medical community among many African Americans, particularly those in impoverished communities who are most in need of medical care.

George and his wife, Alice, had us over to their house for dinner on Thursday night, where we met Mrs. Amelia Boynton Robinson, former President of the Dallas County Voters League and a major pillar in the Selma struggle for voting rights. Mrs. Robinson is now 108 years old, and still crusading for human rights. It was amazing to hear her stories about organizing Selma residents and fighting for economic – not just political – justice. She is particularly interested in encouraging young people to advocate for change, and movingly spoke with us about the importance of following one’s own conscience.

People often ask what “happened” to the movement – to its passion, commitment, and energy. As a historian, I often talk with my students about the reasons that the organized coalition for civil rights collapsed in the late 1960s. But the movement itself continued – and still continues today. We found it in many places on this trip: in a youth theater program in Selma, in Head Start programs and efforts to keep small farmers on their land through coops, in nonviolence training in Atlanta, and in interracial unity efforts and campaigns to provide equal access to medical care for all in Birmingham. And it’s not just in the South. Anywhere that people are organizing to fight poverty, injustice, and racism – including here in Adams County – the movement is alive.


Jill Ogline Titus
Associate Director, Civil War Institute
Gettysburg College
300 N. Washington St. ~ Campus Box 435
Gettysburg, PA 17325


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