History shared but unreconciled in city’s Confederate statue

TUSKEGEE, Ala. (AP) — In 1906, when aging, white Confederate veterans of the Civil War and black ex-slaves still lived on the old plantations of the Deep South, two very different celebrations were afoot in this city known even then as a beacon of black empowerment.

Tuskegee Institute, founded to educate Southern blacks whose families had lived in bondage for generations, was saluting its 25th anniversary.

Meanwhile, area whites were preparing to dedicate a monument to rebel soldiers in a downtown park set aside exclusively for white people.

Flash forward to today and that same Confederate monument still stands in the same park, both of them owned by a Confederate heritage group. They sit in the heart of a poor, black-controlled town of 9,800 people that’s less than 3 percent white.

Students from what’s now Tuskegee University once tried and failed to tear down the old gray statue, which has since become a target for vandals. But critics who want it gone aren’t optimistic about removing it, even as similar monuments come down nationwide.

“I think it would probably take a bomb to get it down,” said Dyann Robinson, president of the Tuskegee Historic Preservation Commission.

The story of how such a monument could be erected and still remain in place a century later offers lessons in just how hard it can be to confront a shared history that still divides a nation.

In 1860, before the Civil War began, Census records show 1,020 white people owned 18,176 black people in Macon County, where Tuskegee sits. The enslaved were mostly kept uneducated. Schooling became nearly as big a need as food and shelter once the fighting stopped in 1865.

Established by the Alabama Legislature through the joint work of a freed slave and a former slave owner, the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute was founded in 1881, according to the school’s official history. Booker T. Washington built it into a leading institution for educating blacks. To this day, it remains a leading historically black university.

By the time of Tuskegee’s 25th anniversary, Washington was widely acclaimed for advocating practical education, character building and hard work to lift blacks from the poverty of the postwar South. William Howard Taft, who would become U.S. president a few years later, attended the celebration; so did industrialist and donor Andrew Carnegie.

Coverage of the anniversary festivities in The Tuskegee News, a white-owned newspaper, emphasized that blacks needed to get along with the whites who had near total control in the old Confederate states.

“Every address from northerner, or southerner, and black gave forth the unmistakable tribute to the value, yea, the absolute necessity of the southern negro doing all in his power to merit the confidence and friendly cooperation of the southern white man …,” the paper reported on its front page.

Meanwhile, the United Daughters of the Confederacy, composed of female descendants of Confederate veterans, was erecting monuments glorifying the “lost cause” of the South all over the region in the early 1900s. The women of the Tuskegee chapter planned one for their town.