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The Hidden History of Afro-Puerto Ricans at Tuskegee
by Frank A.Guridy
Friday, March 13, 2009
As Puerto Ricans prepare to celebrate theabolition of slavery on March 22nd, it might be useful for us to ponder the experiences of afro-descendientes on the island in the decades after emancipation. While many will celebrate by dancing to the bomba y plena, I will be thinking about Fannie Barrios. On April 18, 1905, Francisca “Fannie” Barrios, a student at Tuskegee Institute, sat down to write a letter to the school’s famous principal, Booker T. Washington.
Barrios, a native of San Juan, PuertoRico who had been a student at Tuskegee since 1901, saw her time at the school potentially coming to an end. “I am one of the Porto-Rican Girls in this institution,” Barrios wrote, “and the reason why I am writing you these lines is that I want to ask if you please be kind and try to find a scholarship for me as I am anxious [to finish] my studies here.” Barrios asked for Washington’s assistance because the U.S. colonial government in Puerto Rico had discontinued funding her studies. “I am a poor girl,” Barrios continued, “my mother has seven children and I am the eldest, that was the reason why she sent me to this institution with the idea of learning something for when I leave this place for Porto-Rico I could be of service to her.” Barrios concluded her letter by stating frankly: “I will be disappointed if I have to leave this school..”
Barrios was part of a cohort of international students from Cuba, Puerto Rico, and other parts of the African diaspora who studied at Tuskegee in the early twentieth century. In an era when racial segregation was becoming the governing principle of education in the U.S. South, Tuskegee, and its predecessor Hampton Institute, championed what became known as the “Hampton-Tuskegee Idea” of industrial education for people of African descent. Tuskegee became the pre-eminent model of industrial training. Founded by ex-slave and Hampton graduate Booker T.Washington in rural Alabama in 1881, the institute grew rapidly and superseded Hampton as the most prominent and well-endowed school for African-Americans. Tuskegee quickly developed a national and international stature, attracting thousands of students from across the U.S. and areas outside the country. However, it also attracted hundreds of students from across the African Diaspora, including the African continent, the English-speaking Caribbean, Central and South America, along with Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic.
In recent years, scholars and pundits have given increasing attention to the rapid increase of Latinos in the United States.. Debates on Latinos as the new “majority-minority”population in the U.S. have been frequently accompanied by anxieties about assumed tensions between Latinos and African-Americans. Yet these discussions often overlook a long history of interaction between African-Americans andLatin Americans. An examination of the histories of African-American/ Latino relations illustrates that these populations have been in contact, not just in large urban centers, such as New York, Miami, and Los Angeles, but also in unexpected places. One of the earliest points of contact took place in Tuskegee, Alabama, where Puerto Ricans and other Latin Americans studied during the opening decades of the twentieth century.
Immediately after the War of 1898, Puerto Ricans of African descent attended Tuskegee Institute,the school for African-Americans founded by Booker T. Washington. Under Washington’s leadership, Tuskegee championed the idea of industrial education, arguing that it provided African-Americans with the necessary skills to pull themselves up from the vestiges of slavery. Washington became a world-renowned figure, thanks to the widespread dissemination of his autobiography, Up FromSlavery. His rise from slave status to one of the more powerful black public figures in the United States was inspiring to many Afro-Puerto Ricans who themselves were less than two decades removed from slavery. While Washington’s story, particularly his debates with W.E.B.. Du Bois on the merits of industrial vs. liberal arts education, is well known in U.S. history, his influence in other parts of the Americas is more obscure. His impact was perhaps most strongly felt in Puerto
Aided by the U.S. government, which set up a colonial government in Puerto Rico after the end of the so-called “Spanish-American War,” and U.S. philanthropists, Washington recruited hundreds of Puerto Ricans to study at Tuskegee and Hampton Institute, his alma mater, during the three decades after 1898. The Puerto Rico-Tuskegee project was organized and funded by the U.S.-controlled Department of Education on the island. The program was similar to the U.S.-supervised project that sent Puerto Rican students to the Carlisle Indian School in that it was designed to teach Puerto Rican young men and women industrial methods that they would disseminate to the larger Puerto Rican population as teachers. Despite the imperial roots of these programs, they provided educational opportunities for people of African descent in Puerto Rico in a period when few existed. While some students had difficulties navigating the social and cultural challenges they faced as foreign students in the heart of the Jim Crow South, others flourished, using their experiences at Tuskegee as vehicles of upward mobility.
To get the project going, Washington dipped into the deep pockets of his northern philanthropic network of supporters. While Washington was tapping into his Northern philanthropic circuit, U.S. officials and their Puerto Rican allies, such asJosé Celso Barbosa were busy putting a program in place to send students to Tuskegee. In 1901, the insular legislature passed Council Bill 12, which provided scholarships for twenty students to attend Tuskegee and Hampton. The bill offered ten men and ten women $250 each per year to study at “Hampton,Tuskegee or similar schools.” Following the passage of the C.B. 12, the Puerto Rican presence at Tuskegee increased dramatically. School catalogs show how the demographic presence of Puerto Rican pupils increased dramatically in the opening decade of the twentieth century. In 1901, twenty students arrived from Puerto Rico. After dropping to fifteen in 1903-4, the numbers of students increased dramatically, from 26 in 1905, to 28 in 1906, to 32 in 1909. Puerto Rican student enrollment at the school stayed at approximately 20-25 students per year until the late 1910s, when the numbers dropped to less than a handful.Moreover, Puerto Rican students outperformed their Cuban counterparts. Based on my research at the Tuskegee University Archives, it appears that Puerto Ricans graduated at a much higher rate than the students from Cuba, a remarkable feat considering that the attrition rate at Tuskegee was fairly high. Finally, women were well-represented among the Puerto Rican students at the school, which was also a stark contrast to the virtually all-male Cuban student population.
The presence of Puerto Ricans of African descent at Tuskegee must have been a welcome sight for U.S. colonial officials and northern philanthropists. Certainly, the program was designed to further a major component of the U.S. imperial project on the island, which was to create an apolitical, docile, and cheap labor force schooled in the tenets of U.S. American cultural superiority. To be sure, the Tuskegee-Puerto Rico program was designed to further the U.S.’s imperial objectives on the island. Certainly, this is what U.S. colonial officialdom had in mind. Martin Brumbaugh, the U.S.Commissioner of Education in Puerto Rico wrote to Washington shortly after the U.S. colonial government agreed to sponsor students to study at Tuskegee in 1901. Brumbaugh saw the program furthering the Americanization of the islands, exemplified by his suggestion to the Tuskegee principal that they “scatter some of them into other institutions” in order to “break up their Spanish language.” Brumbaugh’s comments clearly expose the commissioner’s project of cultural imperialism.
Indeed, it is hard to resist the temptation to interpret the Tuskegee-Puerto Rico connection as simply a product of a U.S. imperial project designed to construct a compliant class of Puerto Rican collaborators. U.S.. American white philanthropists and U.S. officialdom in Puerto Rico encouraged Washgington’s efforts because they felt that the so-called “Tuskegee model” of industrial education was best suited for the supposedly inferior intellectual capabilities of people of African descent. However, our discomfort with the public accommodationism of Washington and his Puerto Rican disciples should not stop us from exploring the possibilities and the limits of these relationships that were formed in the heyday of segregation, empire, and scientific racism. In this sense, I am following the lead of historians of black women educators in the Jim Crow South, who have shown that scholars can penetrate the public discourse of accommodation and respectability to unveil the innovative and at times contradictory ways African American women sought to sustain their communities and deflect the effects of racialized power in the segregated world of the U.S.South.
Many Puerto Rican students did not submit to Tuskegee’s rigorous program of industrial education. Like other pupils at the school, resisted Washington’s rigorous curriculum and were expelled by the institution. Those who remained at the school and became loyal supporters of Tuskegee took apart their principal’s message and clung to what they could use to their own purposes. Afro-Puerto Rican alumni of the institution were empowered by Washingtonian racial uplift, not to become good farmers or domestic workers, but to become professionals and entrepreneurs.
Moreover, Puerto Rican students did not “lose” their national identity at Tuskegee. For example, in 1910, Antonio Escabí, a Puerto Rican member of the “Cuban and Porto Rican Club,” asked if the group could have permission to take a day off to “celebrateour national holiday.” Interestingly, the “national holiday” they requested was March 22, which was actually the anniversary date of the abolition of slavery in Puerto Rico. Since Puerto Rico did not have an independence day, it is striking that these students chose to celebrate abolition instead, highlighting their own identification with emancipated slaves.
Like Escabí and the members of the “Cuban and Porto Rican Club” at Tuskegee in 1910, I will be remembering the experiences of the enslaved in Puerto Rico’s history. However, I will also recall the experiences of Puerto Ricans of African descent at Tuskegee who tried to make a way for themselves in the face of racism and U.S.imperialism in the opening decades of the twentieth century.