Lionel Richie’s Tuskegee Road Trip
by Marilyn Jones Stamps
When R&B and pop singer/songwriter/producer Lionel Richie named his album “Tuskegee” after his hometown, it cemented the idea that no matter where you go in the world, you can always come home. Visitors to Tuskegee, located in Macon County in east-central Alabama, will discover a myriad of reasons why Richie is proud to call the small town where he grew up “home.”
In a personal letter to his friends prior to the release of his “Tuskegee” album in 2012, Richie wrote: “This place called Tuskegee is where it all began – the place where I felt that everything was available and possible. It’s where I learned about life and love and the power of music, and the place I built a musical foundation that knows no genres or boundaries. Tuskegee also proved the perfect melting pot for all of my influences as a writer, and as my songwriting progressed, I realized that my songs perfectly translated to country music. Some people say you can never go home. In this case, I am home.”
On this road trip, you can experience centuries of history – from the time Native Americans occupied the area to settlement by European Americans and the many contributions of African-Americans – at the Tuskegee Human & Civil Rights Multicultural Center. Discover a treasure-trove of souvenirs and local history on the downtown square, learn about the importance of Tuskegee University and the Tuskegee Airmen, and take a walk through nature inside the Tuskegee National Forest. Whatever your interest, there are reasons aplenty to visit historic Tuskegee.
A Rich History
The Alabama Legislature created Macon County, formed from what was once Creek land, on Dec. 18, 1832. It was named it for Nathaniel Macon, a Revolutionary War soldier and long-serving political leader from North Carolina. The town of Tuskegee was founded and laid out in 1833 by Gen. Thomas S. Woodward, who fought in the Creek wars under Gen. Andrew Jackson. Woodward selected Tuskegee as the county seat and also built the first home in the town. Tuskegee was officially incorporated in 1843. Since that time, it has been the site of major achievements by African-Americans in fields ranging from education, science and aviation to art, literature, music and civil rights.
Where To Begin
A good place to begin your tour is at the Tuskegee History Center (104 S. Elm St.; 334-724-0800). In addition to providing visitors information on things to see and do in the area, this walk-through-time museum, founded by noted civil rights lawyer Fred Gray, offers a historical overview of Tuskegee and Macon County. Exhibits showcase Macon County’s Native American and European heritage and highlight Tuskegee’s role in the Civil Rights Movement, the impact of the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study and the contributions of local citizens to state and national history.
First-time visitors to the center might be surprised when they arrive and are welcomed by historical greeters who are dressed as noted Alabamians such as Zora Neale Hurston (author of "Their Eyes Were Watching God"), who was born in nearby Notasulga in 1891; Mrs. Booker T. Washington; or jazz musician Teddy Wilson, who studied piano and violin at Tuskegee Institute. Wilson changed the color of music when he joined the Benny Goodman Trio in 1935 and became the first black musician to perform publicly with a previously all-white jazz group.
The greeters are not always available, but they can be pre-arranged for groups.
As you enter the museum, you will get a brief introduction to the work of contemporary artist and sculptor Ronald Scott McDowell, whose distinctive figures of a Native American, European American and an African-American grace the entryway. The California native spent a considerable amount of time in Tuskegee and has documented many of its legends through his artwork. A gift shop to the right of the entrance showcases some of his work as well as features items by local artisans, including caps, T-shirts, books and jewelry.
McDowell, most notably recognized for his graphic sculptures of police dogs menacing an African-American civil rights protester in Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham, has been hailed as one of today’s most versatile artists. He was also commissioned for the 50th anniversary of the Birmingham civil rights campaign to do a work relating to the four little girls killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963.
Strolling through the museum’s interactive exhibits, you’ll find yourself in awe over the amount of civil rights history associated with Tuskegee. Meet civil rights activists Rosa Parks who was born in Tuskegee as Rosa Louise McCauley on Feb. 4, 1913. Discover the exploits of the Tuskegee Airmen who overcame segregation and stereotypical barriers as fighter pilots during World War II, and consider the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, an experiment conducted by the U.S. government and Tuskegee Institute from 1932 to 1972 on black males in and around Tuskegee without their consent. The experiment, in which some of the syphilis cases went purposefully untreated, ended only after a media exposé prompted a national outcry.
Following the museum’s timeline, you’ll learn about landmark civil rights cases such as Gomillion v. Lightfoot (1958) and Lee v. Macon County (1963), which guaranteed voting rights and equal education for blacks. Both of these cases took place in Tuskegee. And you will hear the tragic story of Tuskegee native Samuel Younge Jr. (1944-1966), who was the first African-American student activist killed during the Civil Rights Movement. His shooting death at a Macon County service station became a rallying point for opponents of racial inequality during the late 1960s.
At the end of the tour, you will have an opportunity to tell your own story and leave it as a recorded legacy for future generations. Hours are seasonal, so be sure to call ahead when planning your visit.
A Historic Downtown Courthouse and Square
Another good reason to visit Tuskegee is the historic downtown area. While driving or walking downtown, it’s impossible to miss the Macon County Courthouse and the Historic Courthouse Square featuring the monument of a Confederate soldier standing gallantly in the midst of it. The first courthouse, a log cabin, was built in 1833 and located in the center of the square. The current courthouse (the third one built) was begun in 1905 and completed in 1906.
Sporting a Richardsonian Romanesque-style design with a brick façade and granite trim, this handsome facility is the only courthouse in Alabama that has gargoyles at each corner of its clock tower. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places on Nov. 17, 1978, and still serves as the seat of government for Macon County.
In addition to the distinctive courthouse, visitors to the downtown historic district will find a quaint museum called Kirk’s Old Farm Museum (109 Westside St.; 334-727-6200). Owned and operated by local historian Charles Kirk for several decades, the museum features turn-of-the-century farm implements, Native American artifacts, plus memorabilia and exhibits relating to the town. Hours are seasonal and by appointment only.
A coffeehouse named Tiger Pause (334-727-1007), in honor of the legendary Tuskegee Golden Tigers, is also located on the square. It serves a wide variety of coffees, teas and light food, including turkey sandwiches and homemade soups. Hours are Monday through Friday, 8 a.m.-6 p.m., and Saturdays, 8 a.m.-1 p.m.
Educational Excellence and the Tuskegee Institute National Historic Site
From the downtown square, head to Tuskegee University, an institution many consider the heart and soul of African-American education in America. To get there from the square, take Martin Luther King Jr. Hwy. (Old U.S. Highway 80) to Fonville Street and turn right. Continue on Fonville until the dead end. Turn left onto West Montgomery Road (locals call it Old Montgomery Road) and follow it to the stoplight. Turn right into the main gates of the campus onto Booker T. Washington Boulevard.
Tuskegee Normal School for Colored Teachers, later called Tuskegee Institute and now Tuskegee University, was founded in 1881 for the expansion of higher education for African-Americans following the Civil War. In that year, 25-year-old Booker T. Washington of Hampton, Va., came to Tuskegee to assist with development of the school. Washington arrived in Alabama and started building Tuskegee Institute, both in reputation and literally brick by brick from the confines of a small church and a little shack. He recruited, among others, George Washington Carver, a research scientist, botanist and inventor whose innovations in agriculture expanded Tuskegee’s standing throughout the country.
Since its founding, Tuskegee University has been at the center of excellence in a variety of fields, from science, agriculture and aviation to literature, sports and music. Two of America’s foremost writers – Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray – were products of Tuskegee. The first African-American fighter pilots were trained at Tuskegee University’s Moton Field in 1940. In addition, the nation’s first African-American four-star general and one of the original Tuskegee Airmen, Daniel “Chappie” James, was a 1942 graduate of the university, as were nationally syndicated radio talk show host Tom Joyner, who graduated in 1970, and Lionel Richie, who graduated in 1974. The Tuskegee University Golden Tigers have also earned the school honors. The university boasts America’s “winningest” football team among historically black colleges and universities.
The historic campus is a good place to end the day as it is part of the Tuskegee Institute National Historic Site (334-727-3200). Operated by the National Park Service, the site also includes the George Washington Carver Museum and former university President Booker T. Washington’s historic home, known as The Oaks. Next to the Carver Museum, you’ll find the beautiful Kellogg Hotel & Conference Center (334-727-3000) where you can enjoy breakfast, lunch and dinner at Dorothy’s Restaurant and great overnight lodging.
Group tours of The Oaks are limited to 25 people at a time. Visitors should call 334-727-3200 in advance for details.
For your campus and museum tour, you’ll want to go past the front of the hotel and look for the entrance that leads to the hotel’s parking deck. From the top floor of the parking deck, walk through the breezeway that faces the back of the Carver Museum. Inside the museum, exhibits showcase the history of Tuskegee Institute as well as Carver’s empirical research with the peanut, the sweet potato, soybeans and other crops.
After leaving the chapel, return to your car and exit the Kellogg Center parking deck, turning left on to Booker T. Washington Boulevard. Continue through the main gates and turn left on to West Montgomery Road for a tour of The Oaks. Inside the house museum, you’ll learn about Washington’s philosophy on education and self-help and view the surroundings that characterized his family life.
Although not open for public tours, within walking distance of the university’s main gates (across the street on the left at the traffic light at the intersection of West Montgomery Road and Franklin Road) is the gray house with the white trim where a young Lionel Richie grew up with his parents (1211 W. Montgomery Rd.).
Richie graduated from Tuskegee in 1974 and still uses the residence for relaxing with friends and family when he comes home to the alma mater that he loves and supports.
A Visit to the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site
Get up early the next morning and head to the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site, which provides another excellent reason for a visit. The museum in Hangar #1 is open from 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. daily (except certain major holidays) and consists of two main visitor areas. The orientation room includes a four-minute video that introduces you to the Tuskegee Airmen, the struggles of those who overcame adversity to become decorated fighter pilots during World War II.
The museum area houses two World War II-era training aircraft and takes you on a journey back to the 1940s through a recreation of some of the sights and sounds of Moton Field during its heyday. Individual and group tours are welcomed; however, groups of 10 or more are asked to call 334-724-0922 one to two weeks in advance of their planned visit to make a reservation.
A scenic overlook is available at the site for picnicking and relaxing. From there you can enjoy a great view of the historic core where original buildings from the 1940s bear witness to a bygone era. More than 20 wayside exhibits are also strategically placed throughout the site to allow you to take a leisurely stroll through Tuskegee Airmen history while collecting tidbits of trivia.
The Tuskegee National Forest
Offering camping, hiking, horseback riding and scenic nature walks, the Tuskegee National Forest (Tuskegee Ranger District: 125 National Forest Rd. 949; 334-727-2652) is a must-stop for any visitor. Included in the forest is the scenic Bartram Trail, which was the first trail in Alabama to be designated a National Recreation Trail. It runs through the forest for about 8.5 miles, passing through various types of woodland and wildlife habitat.
The Veil of Ignorance Monument
After touring the Carver Museum, walk down the sidewalk and cross the street to see the monument depicting Booker T. Washington lifting the veil of ignorance from the African-American race. Continue down Booker T. Washington Boulevard to see the historic gravesites of both Washington and Carver and the historic Tuskegee Chapel next door with its “singing windows.” The Tuskegee Chapel has been described as one of the most remarkable structures designed for any college in the United States and abroad.
Related Road Trips
Rosa Parks, Paul “Bear” Bryant and Jesse Owens: A Centennial Road Trip
What do Rosa Parks, Paul “Bear” Bryant and Jesse Owens have in common? Besides the fact that each of them has a museum named in their honor, all three of these famous Alabamians were born in 1913, and each played a role in integration.