It’s hard to imagine these two in the same room at the same time, frankly.
But, back in 1881 what would later become Tuskegee University was founded as a black teachers college. Few knew it at the time, but Tuskegee’s first instructor and president, the 25-year-old former slave, Booker T. Washington, would go on to become a titan of modern education, a nationally-renowned orator and public intellectual, an industrialist, and then a by-word for a competing, conciliatory vision of civil rights in America.
A decade later, halfway cross the nation in farm country, another former slave-turned-college student was entering Iowa State University. This man would integrate Iowa State and later stay for graduate work, where he wrote a thesis on man-made genetic selection in plants. The so-called Plant Doctor would eventually save an entire region’s nitrogen-stripped soil from its centuries of cotton cultivation. Along the way, he caught the attention and admiration of both Roosevelts, helped fend off the worst of the Depression in the Deep South, and became known as the Black Leonardo — George Washington Carver.
Earlier in this countdown, we covered the story of the boll weevil and the stripped soil that plagued the United States. And, but for the pioneering work of George Washington Carver at his Tuskegee labs, the south’s reeling economies would have been decimated during the Depression — to say nothing of countless more people starving.
For two decades, Carver and Washington worked together (and clashed) at Tuskegee, promoting education and agriculture and financial independence for the freedmen and their children. It was often a stormy relationship, as is wont to happen between two intelligent, accomplished men. But, that marriage of the pragmatist seeking financial independence for southern blacks with the fact-focused inquisitive scientist was one that that would benefit not just blacks in the south or Alabamians, but people throughout the world. And it led in ways — both practical and aspirational — to tiny Tuskegee’s rise as one of the HBCU powerhouses.
While Tuskegee has gone on to produce a litany of famous and influential alumni in its 130-year history, none had the combined or singular impact of these two men. This was the golden age.
Both men passed away in Tuskegee, Alabama. Both are buried at the Tuskegee University Campus Cemetery. And both leave a larger-than-life legacy on the pages of America’s history.
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