Black folks who want to grill July 4 and stay woke — honor Tuskegee instead

OPINION: Instead of celebrating Independence Day, Black people should celebrate the university also founded on July 4 by Booker T. Washington

Physics Class at Tuskegee Institute (Photo: Tuskegee University)

We have been in quarantining, social distancing and ignoring the reality of the COVID-19 threat (depending on what state you live in and where you get your information) for roughly 110 days.

Ironically, about the same number of days since Breonna Taylor was killed in her own home by police officers who still have yet to be charged, arrested, or fired.

And maybe it’s some combination of not having sports or travel or outside as a distraction and having little to turn our attention away from the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna (whose murderers still haven’t been charged, by the way), Elijah McClain and others whose names we do and don’t know, but everyone seems to be extra “woke” right now. 

READ MORE: Colorado cops on paid leave after photos taken at Elijah McClain memorial

And this means Juneteenth was extra lit, but it also means there are increased calls to cancel the Fourth of July. 

For those who are just waking up and realizing there isn’t really cause for us to celebrate the ideals of a nation whose founding excluded us, I offer you this: Tuskegee University was founded on July 4, 1881. A Black college founded by a Black man  —  one born into slavery!  —  105 years after this nation’s birthday (105 is almost the number of days since Breonna Taylor’s murder. Did you know the guys who did it are still free, and receiving their taxpayer-funded salaries?) is a perfect reason to celebrate.

READ MORE: White professor sues Tuskegee University claiming discrimination

And the fact that Booker T. Washington got the state to pay for it is even more reason to celebrate. (The education of Black children: What a good use of taxpayer funds. Better than paying the salaries of police officers who murder Black men and women without reproach.)

Booker T. Washington’s thoughts on the way forward for Black folks in this country are a bit controversial. You might be inclined to call him an Uncle Tom if you didn’t stop to consider the nuance of this man having been born into slavery in the American South and knowing his very survival was dependent on a measure of subservience.

Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee University (Photo: Library of Congress)

You might forget that his obtaining an education himself was a radical act at the time, or that walking 500 miles to attend what is now Hampton University underscored his determination to obtain said education, and set the foundation for his belief in self-actualization. 

But regardless of how you feel about the Atlanta Compromise, you cannot ignore Booker T.’s commitment to educating Black students across Alabama, many of them themselves born onto plantations to parents who were formerly enslaved. He had the school’s first students construct the buildings, build the wagons and carts and buggies when they were not in class.

Not only did this mean the students were leaving the institution with both book learning and practical skills, the bricks and carts the students made filled a market void in the community, which did not have a place to buy bricks or wagons. This helped establish the university as a key partner to the community, and forced local whites to acknowledge the value this Black institution and its Black students brought. 

Anyway, y’all, listen. We’ve been through a lot these last few months, years, decades, centuries. But if Black folks are good at anything, it’s making lemon pound cake from lemons.

And while some folks celebrate a flag and ideals that exclude us, I choose to celebrate the 4th of July as Tuskegee’s Founders Day and toast the radical idea of educating Black children. So join me.

Throw something on the grill. Pop some fireworks. And go ahead over to and make a donation to the annual fund to make sure we have an excuse to keep barbequing and lighting up firecrackers for years to come. 

Autumn A. Arnett is a national voice on issues of equity and access in education, and an unapologetic advocate for historically Black colleges and universities across the country.



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