booker t. washington portrait

"Lifting The Veil of Ignorance"

Dedicated: 1922

Sculptor Charles Keck portrays Booker T. Washington with his goal of bringing his people a better life through a better education. He is depicted lifting the veil of ignorance from his people, symbolized by a terrified slave. The slave holds a book representing education and crouches on a plow and anvil, representing tools of agriculture and industry.

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Through the eyes of history

by Rachel Davis
Two opposing statues bring out opposing feelings about history

Confederate statue in the town square of Tuskegee, Alabama

Original photo, © Carol M. Highsmith at Library of Congress

His eyes tell a story. For nearly a century he has watched, lifeless among the living, looming quietly over the land he once defended, wearing the uniform of a nation that died in infancy. He has endured civil protests, the burning of a courthouse and the economic and social decline of a once-prosperous Southern town.

But most townspeople in Tuskegee, Ala., don't notice his eyes. For some, he is nothing more than a cold, rocky reminder of a cruel past that remains fixed in the present and stands, stone-faced, in the way of the future.

Perhaps some have noticed his eyes, though. They haven't always overlooked him, standing gravely defiant, in the town square. He is a Confederate soldier, musing on his monument in downtown Tuskegee.

Two miles across town is another pair of eyes. These are more determined, perhaps, than the other's, but more contemplative about the life chronicles of those he has watched over for nearly 80 years. He presides over an institution, and he watched it grow from a dilapidated church to about eight hundred acres of promise and buildings and classrooms for his people.

They, the ones who walk past him, notice his eyes. They belong to a man—a hero—who, in all his grandeur, delved in the trenches of an unfair society to bring better footing for some during an otherwise inequitable time. They celebrate him—this statue of Booker T. Washington—a remembrance of long-endured hardships.

He shares his lookout post with another figure with another set of storytelling eyes: those of a newly freed slave. The two faces are similar in structure—both are black—but one stands and lifts a veil, while one crouches and gazes out in fear and hope. Once blinded, he can only now see the beginning of the future.

The two the past, no matter how cruel or unkind, to the present...

"I touched it," boasts Amber Kirk of the monument that marks the center of the present-day Tuskegee University campus. The 10-year-old twirls sheepishly around her grandfather's store as he pours over his immense collection of memorabilia dating back to the Civil War. He is Charles Kirk, noted Tuskegee historian, and his museum is set on the southwest end of the square, in diagonal line from the Confederate soldier monument that marks the center of downtown Tuskegee.

Amber has grown up watching her grandfather meticulously preserve his past—a hobby, aside from the flower shop next-door that he owns and manages. She delights in his pastime and says she understands, but she is far too young to remember the implications of soiled yesterdays surrounding the two images—one of white marble and the other of darkened bronze.

"Ninety-nine percent of the blacks don't understand the statue," said Charles Kirk, speaking of the Confederate monument. "They think it was all about slavery, but it was about seven states wanting to form their own country."

During the civil rights struggle of the 1960s, the statue was vandalized by local townspeople who despised its very prominent existence in the heart of predominantly black populated Macon County. Local townspeople spray painted the monument black, beat the surface with hammers and attempted to pull it down, according to Kirk. (* see Note below)

Kirk ambled across the street from his museum to point out the tiny imperfections that remain—the only evidence of the hatred of a structure that is now merely overlooked—while Amber scaled the base to get a better look.

As a part of a regional movement to protect a dying heritage, the Daughters of the Confederacy dedicated the statue in 1906. Most counties in the Southeast, in fact, have a memorial dedicated to those who fought for the Confederate Stars and Bars.

"What statue?" said Deborah Gray, daughter of Civil Rights lawyer Fred Gray and Tuskegee resident as she smiled sarcastically. She doesn't think much of that majestic icon of buried memories, and neither, she says, does the rest of the town. "Most people don't know, don't wanna know or have forgotten," she said of the soldier's somewhat formidable past.

But, the bronzed likeness of Booker T. Washington and a newly freed slave in the heart of the Tuskegee campus—that's a different story. Washington, founder of Tuskegee Institute, worked to bring blacks a better life through a better education, and the Institute was the outlet for his hopes and ambitions.

Lifting The Veil

Original photo, © Carol M. Highsmith, at Library of Congress

The monument, designed by sculptor Charles Keck and erected in 1922, depicts Washington lifting the veil of ignorance off his people, symbolized by a terrified slave, by showing them the ways of a better life. The slave crouches on a plow and anvil, representing tools of agriculture and industry, the fields in which Washington chose to educate his people. The slave holds a book that represents that education.

But not everyone loves that statue. In the masterpiece Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison describes it much differently: "I am standing puzzled," his narration begins, "unable to decide whether the veil is really being lifted, or lowered more firmly in place; whether I am witnessing a revelation or a more efficient blinding."

The two images—considered by some as eyesores and comforting reminders for others—are worlds apart although they share common soil. They link the past, no matter how cruel or unkind, to the present that often welcomes their message with reluctant, yet appreciative arms.

5/5/12—Note: Alabama Archives and History researcher, Chelyon Woods informed us that the statue was vandalized by Tuskegee students rioting over the extreme injustice they felt was committed when the murderer of Sammy Younge Jr. (son of a very prominent Tuskegee family and Civil Rights activist) received no prison time.

Most of the protesters were Tuskegee Institute students and not from the town.

Thank you, Ms. Woods, for bringing this to our attention.