A small, unassuming church perched on a hill above the highway, Butler’s Chapel AME Zion Church is the site where Booker T. Washington founded a school in 1881 which would in time become Tuskegee University. It was founded by Rev. John Butler and other freed slaves in the days of Reconstruction and was “one of the first attempts by Macon County blacks to create institutions free of white control” (Robert Norrell, Reaping the Whirlwind, Kindle loc. 1871). On the night of June 25, 1957, a crowd of 500 packed inside – with 2500 gathered outside – for a mass meeting organized by the Tuskegee Civic Association to announce a boycott of white-owned stores in protest of a bill introduced in the state legislature which would gerrymander the Tuskegee city limits to exclude all black voters (ibid, Kindle loc. 1853, 1866). Mass meetings continued to be held at Butler’s Chapel throughout the summer. The boycott lasted over two years and led directly to the overturning of the gerrymander bill.
Tuskegee University is highly regarded, world renowned historically black college and university (HBCU). It was founded in 1881 by Booker T. Washington as a school for training black teachers. Washington’s philosophy was that blacks should be given the chance to educate themselves and establish economic independence. With these in place, Washington believed blacks would prove their equality to whites who would respond by sharing political power. He took what has been called an “accommodationist” approach to social change in relation to racial injustice. This process was slow – at times unbearably so – but many would say it has been a success. It was the economic independence of the black community that empowered their boycott which became a great source of political strength. The person named on the street sign, Charles G. Gomillion, was a professor at Tuskegee University who founded and led the Tuskegee Civic Association in its struggle for political and racial equality in Macon County.
Moton Field is the site where the famed “Tuskegee Airmen”, who flew in WWII, were trained. It was founded in 1941 as the Tuskegee Army Air Field (TAAF). It’s current namesake, Robert Moton, was the 2nd president of Tuskegee University. Moton was well-known for his role in bringing another institution to Tuskegee, the VA Hospital, which, along with the TAAF, represented black progress in the Washington tradition.
Tuskegee First Methodist Church is the historically white Methodist church in town and is a member of the United Methodist Church. Once a thriving congregation, its membership has fallen precipitously over the past several decades in direct correlation with the white population in Tuskegee. Currently, it has a handful of faithful members, white and black, and is pastored by an African-American woman. These members are now reaching out to the community and seeking to renew their vital place in the life of Tuskegee. Alabama Rural Ministry (ARM), where I began working in August, has been partnering with the congregation over the past few years to renovate their long-vacated educational wing. ARM will use this space to expand its capacity for hosting volunteer teams. Over the past few months, I’ve been privileged to be a part of a group of church and community leaders who are dreaming of what this newly renovated space will become.
This is the Maple St. house. It’s an abandoned home that was donated to Alabama Rural Ministry who is now overseeing its rehabilitation. This represents an important first step for ARM into the arena of community development and neighborhood revitalization. In 2010, the U.S. Census reported that Tuskegee had nearly 900 vacant housing units (~19%). Over 100 abandoned homes in Tuskegee have already been demolished this year alone. ARM’s director, Lisa Pierce, was recently appointed to the Neighborhood Revitalization committee of the Macon County Chamber of Commerce. We are excited about how this project is drawing us even deeper into the life of the community. Our hope is to rent the home to a low-income veteran’s family. The workers in the picture are Building Science students at Auburn University. ARM relies on volunteers for virtually all of its home repair and rehabilitation ministry.
My community is the small, rural city of Tuskegee, AL, located in Macon County in the east-central region of Alabama. As my photo captions demonstrate, there is much to know about Tuskegee and its unique history, but to begin I present a selection of demographic statistics to provide a high-level view of the community. According to the most recent estimates published by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2013, Tuskegee’s population is approximately 9,556 persons most of whom (93.5%) are African-American. Its economy has been struggling for several decades, but is showing signs of new life with a higher-than-average median household income growth rate of 36.6% since 2000. Despite this encouraging growth, the median household income in 2013 was $26,848. The rates of poverty and unemployment are high at 29.9% and 22.2% respectively. With regard to education, 82.8% of Tuskegee’s residents have earned a high-school equivalent education, while only 25.6% have a bachelor’s degree or higher. The median value of homes in Tuskegee is $80,000, but the housing situation is deteriorating with nearly 21.4% of housing units vacant. These statistics provide a helpful place to begin getting to know this community, but they cannot tell the whole story and therefore must be held lightly with some degree of critical suspicion to provide a space for the personal, familial, and communal stories which compose Tuskegee’s rich narrative to be told.
I do not live in Tuskegee, but it could be considered my “place of work.” In August 2014, I began working for a non-profit organization called Alabama Rural Ministry (ARM). Our ministry focuses primarily on home repair. ARM was founded in 1998 in Sumter County, AL (my hometown), but has been serving in Macon County (and the neighboring Lee County) since 2002. Many of ARM’s ministries are based in Tuskegee, and for the past several years, ARM has been in close partnership with the Tuskegee First Methodist Church. Out of all the communities where ARM serves, Tuskegee is the one where we are most heavily invested.
According to Mtika and Bronkema (2011), a community is “an arena (locality factor) in which community social processes (non-locality factor) take place” (p. 1). As I reflect on how I define Tuskegee as a community, my definition includes all three types of locality factors defined by Mtika and Bronkema (2011): (1) territorial because the actual geographic place known as Tuskegee, AL is the primary focus; (2) institutional because ARM and its ties to local religious groups are also in view; and (3) associational because Tuskegee’s place in the “black community” in America is highlighted. With regard to social processes, my definition of Tuskegee as a community points to the development of common ties, collective reflection over issues, and the formation of identity (Mtika and Bronkema, 2011, p. 10).
My photos of Tuskegee tell a story about the black community’s strength and patient endurance in the face of racial inequality. At the same time, it reveals the deep wounds of racial division, which remain to be reconciled. Ultimately, though, the story I tell about Tuskegee is the story of an outsider. In many ways, it is the “typical” story one might hear about Tuskegee in a history book. My telling of the story lacks what Ledwith calls the “heart” of community storytelling, which are the “voices of the people” (p. 34). This lack of personal character puts me at risk of objectifying the community, of ignoring its particularity and uniqueness, its “soul.” A story without heart and soul is devoid of love, without which, community work becomes “technical, routinized, shallow, and exploitative” (Westoby and Dowling, 2009, p.25). It is love, Westoby and Dowling (2009) note, that keeps people from getting “stuck in their own story” and allows them to develop a capacity for deep listening that is fundamental to relationships founded in mutuality and dialogue (p. 26). While deeply challenging, this critique encourages me to move humbly out of my place of comfort, safety, and privilege in order to hear and learn from the personal stories of Tuskegee’s people.
Ledwith, M. (2011). Community Development: A Critical Approach, 2nd edition. Birmingham, United Kingdom: Venture Press.
Mtika, Njalayawo M and Bronkema, David. 2011. “Definition of Community Development” (unpublished).
U.S. Census Bureau. (2013). Tuskegee city, Alabama. Retrieved from http://factfinder2.census.gov.
Westoby, P. & Dowling, G. (2012). Dialogical Community Development. Australia: Tafina Press.