Who founded Tuskegee University?

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Lewis Adams  (October 27, 1842 – April 30, 1905) 

Lewis Adams

Mention Tuskegee and the names of Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver are bound to come up. But did you know there was another man who played a critical part in the founding of that institution? Lewis Adams was born a slave, son of a white livery stable owner, Jessie Adams, (Adams family Bible) and an African American enslaved mother. Adams was industrious, intelligent, and seized every opportunity that came his way.

He was never allowed to attend formal school. Yet he played with his white half brothers and sisters and looked over their shoulders as they did their lessons. He taught himself to read and write, and even learned several foreign languages. This in spite of the 1833 Alabama slave code that stated: ” Anyone who attempts to teach any free person of color or slave to spell, read, or write, shall be fined not less than $250 and not more than $500. “

He learned harness making, tinsmithing, and shoemaking. When old enough, he was allowed to take Sarah “Sallie” Mae Green as his wife. Sallie was the mulatto daughter of the neighboring plantation owner. There is no record of their courtship, and it’s hard to imagine how they managed it – the laws stated that “Any master, mistress, or overseer who allows slaves from other plantations to stay more than four hours on his or her property will be fined.  ” Lewis and Sallie had two children, both born into slavery.

Lewis worked and bided his time. Finally, the war ended, and emancipation came. Lewis was better situated than most – he had an education and marketable skills. In fact, when he left his father’s plantation and set up his own shop in downtown Tuskegee, he advanced race relations – his skills were in great demand, and everyone marveled at his ability, friendliness, and the quality of his work. Young blacks came to him to learn a trade. After emancipation, he and Sallie had fourteen more children. Sallie became a community mother, teaching young black women to cook and sew. Soon they had more applicants for their programs than they could teach, having a shortage of both time, and space.

About the same time as Lewis and Sallie’s vocational efforts, the Zion Baptist Church, where Lewis was a deacon, started a program to teach young black people to read, write, and cipher – but it quickly failed, due to the lack of black teachers skilled enough to teach. Lewis began trying to solve that problem as well, wanting to establish a normal school. A white politician sought Lewis’s help in persuading the black community to vote for him, promising to establish the school if he was elected. Lewis went along, the candidate won, and the Alabama legislature voted $2000 a year annually for the establishment of a Negro Normal School, to train and supply black teachers, in Tuskegee.

Lewis and the white politician, George W. Campbell, hired a young man from Virginia, also a former slave, to serve as the first principal – Booker T. Washington.

Lewis was named one of three original commissioners for the school, and remained on the board until his death. Lewis was passionate about education for young blacks. Together, he and Dr. Washington raised funds to buy a nearby plantation, and moved the school there. When Dr. Washington traveled to Europe to speak on behalf of the school, Lewis went along to translate German, French, and Italian. The two worked together seamlessly, of one mind and purpose.

Booker T. Washington wrote of Adams:  “The leading colored citizen in Tuskegee is Mr. Lewis Adams, to whom the honor should largely be given for securing the location of the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in the town. Mr. Adams is not only an intelligent and successful business man, but is one who combines with his business enterprise rare common sense and discretion. “

Booker T Washington, The Story of My Life and Work)

“I have always felt that Mr. Adams, in a large degree, derived his unusual power of mind from the training given his hands in the process of mastering well three trades during the days of slavery. If one goes to-day into any Southern town, and asks for the leading and most reliable coloured man in the community, I believe that in five cases out of ten he will be directed to a Negro who learned a trade during the days of slavery.

Booker T. Washington. Up from Slavery: An Autobiography (Kindle Locations 1178-1180)

The epitaph on Lewis’s grave aptly records that he was “Faithful in all the relations of life.” He died in Sunday School on April 30, 1905, felled by a stroke while singing, “Whosoever Will Let Him Come.”

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