Posts Tagged ‘Tuskegee’


Today I was browsing the online archives of the Library of Congress and chanced upon this 1930s drawing by Katherine Lamb Tait. Though it is not labeled as such, I realized it was an early rendition of her design for the unique stained glass windows at Tuskegee University known as The Singing Window.


About two years ago, I wrote an article describing the story behind the windows. You can read it online here in Deep South Magazine and learn how Tait collaborated with Robert Moton, President of Tuskegee, to produce what would be a visual expression of eleven spirituals.


Installed in 1933, the original windows would only be in place for about twenty years before a fire destroyed the chapel where they were located. But because Tait’s final design survived …


… when a new chapel was built in the 1960’s, architects were able to recreate and include the new Singing Window as well.


I hope to see it in person one day. This photo of the window can be found on the Library of Congress website courtesy of photographer Carol M. Highsmith.

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Read about The Singing Window at Tuskegee University in Deep South Magazine here. Enjoy!

Photo by Carol M. Highsmith

Photo by Carol M. Highsmith

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… there was a school and on the campus there was a chapel and inside the chapel there was a stained glass window known as The Singing Window.

photo by Carol M. Highsmith

photo by Carol M. Highsmith


Sources and Additional Readings

Learn more about the photographer Carol M. Highsmith on the Library of Congress website: Carol M. Highsmith Archive.

Learn more about Tuskegee University including its tours and the history of the chapel.

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I’d seen the sculpture many times inside Trinity Church but not truly appreciated it. A man holding a cup, a cup-bearer, but the person depicted had no context for me.  I knew nothing of his significance in the past or in the present.  There were too many other visuals capturing my attention, like sunlight through stained glass windows.  Only recently have I returned with greater respect to the relief of Elijah Winchester Donald, Rector of Trinity from 1892 until 1904.

Detail of E. Winchester Donald Sculpture by Bela Pratt

I unexpectedly re-discovered the sculpture, and the man depicted, while researching the history of a church thousands of miles away at what is now known as Tuskegee University in Tuskegee, Alabama.

During my research I came across an issue of The Southern Workman, a publication founded in 1872 by General Samuel Chapman Armstrong of Hampton Institute, Hampton, VA.  Armstrong would leave his mark on American history for many reasons, one of which included founding Hampton just after the Civil War. There, a young Booker T. Washington, formerly a slave, would become a student and eventually a teacher. In 1881, when people in Alabama, wanting to start a new institute for black students, reached out to Armstrong for principal recommendations, Armstrong suggested young Washington who applied for the position and got the job.

The August 1895 issue of The Southern Workman made note of Tuskegee’s achievements, including recent receipt of anonymous funds to build a new chapel.  But prior to those funds being received graduation commencement services took place and, the journal describes the event in this way:

Years late, Booker T. Washington would describe the moment in a slightly different way.  In 1901, Washington wrote Up from Slavery, the chronicle of his journey from slavery, his attendance at Hampton and eventual leadership at Tuskegee and well beyond.  As Washington wrote, money had been found to start Tuskegee, with money set aside to pay future instructors, but no provisions had been made for securing land and buildings.

Later in his autobiography, Washington gives his personal recollection of the 1895 Tuskegee commencement in which Dr. Donald spoke:

The chapel would be built, designed by Robert R. Taylor, the first African American graduate of MIT. The chapel would be erected between 1896 and 1898, a structure some scholars say Taylor considered his masterpiece.

Robert R. Taylor

Robert R. Taylor

In 1900 author Max Thrasher wrote: “The building of this chapel illustrates, as well as any one instance can, the methods of the industrial training at Tuskegee.  The plans for the building were drawn by the school’s instructor in architectural and mechanical drawing.  The bricks, one million two hundred thousand in number, were made by students in the school’s brick yard and laid by the men in the brick-laying classes.  The lumber was was cut on the school’s land and sawed in the saw mill on the grounds.  The various wood-working classes did the work which in their departments.  The floor is of oak; all the rest of the finish in in yellow pine, and the use of this wood … The pews were built after a model designed by one of the students, and another student designed the cornices. The tin and slate roofing was put on by students, and the steam heating and electric lighting apparatus was installed by them …” Before his death in 1904, Donald would have an opportunity to speak in this chapel.

Though from two very different backgrounds, Donald and Washington appear to have greatly respected one another. In 1895  Donald established the Trinity Church Oratorical Prize, an award for the best written and best delivered paper on an assigned subject, a student prize that continues at Tuskegee, with different sources of funding, to this day.  For many reasons, Washington often made his way up North, cultivating philanthropists, accepting honorary degrees, attending national conferences, and speaking in places like Trinity.  In 1897 he was invited to deliver an address at the dedication of the Robert Gould Shaw Monument in Boston.  Prior to his arrival, Donald sent him a letter:

In 1901, Donald presented the dedication address for a new campus building at Tuskegee.  In attendance were noted business leaders and philanthropists including George Foster Peabody and John D. Rockefeller Jr. Before them was a magnificent campus, once a few fragile buildings, transformed by student-labor into a thriving educational institute with over 100 hundred instructors and staff, 50 buildings both functional and aesthetic, over 2500 acres of land with solid farming infrastructure and students applying from around the world.

Chemistry Lab 1902

Chemistry Lab 1902

Instructor George Washington Carver

Tuskegee Instructor George Washington Carver

Donald’s dedication address was made just a few decades after the end of the Civil War.  There was still great philosophical debate about what was to become of the millions of African Americans formerly enslaved.  Like Washington, Donald seemed to believe that education and skill building were the key for black people to let go of the past, achieve success in the present, and build a foundation for future excellence.

During the address, Donald would say: “We are in the presence of a fact. Whether or not the negro can be raised to self-respect, industry, thrift and ethical soundness, let the doctrinaires debate. One thing we know, whereas he was blind to his only chance, now he sees. He has only to keep his eyes open and use his chance to rise clean out of the condition into which 200 years of enforced servitude and thirty-five years of stupid, selfish and merciless political exploitation thrust him down.”  His words would become controversial with statements including “an educated negro without a vote is worth infinitely more than ten illiterate white men who vote as often as the polls are open.

Until the end of his days, in person and in writing, Donald would support the efforts of Washington at Tuskegee and those at other Southern black schools educating new generations.  He supported the efforts of many people inside the U.S. and from abroad trying to make social change.  He may have thought he was being militant.

As was said by the Rector of Grace Church in his memory, “his supreme gift was not militancy,–however it may have seemed to some, as well as to himself,–his supreme gift was not militancy, it was sympathy; he gave drink to the thirsty; he satisfied the longing soul; his true emblem was not the claymore, as he fancied, it was the chalice.”

Others stated, “Some of us disagreed with him, some of us thought his positions untenable, but none of us doubted his fraternal regard.”

His memorial was completed January 27, 1907, the bas relief by sculptor Bela Pratt and its setting designed by Donald’s friend, Charles A. Coolidge.

As for that chapel at Tuskegee, it would continue to evolve but that is a story for another day.

Sources & Additional Reading

Up from Slavery by Booker T. Washington

History of Tuskegee (University Website)

Tuskegee: Its History and its Work (1900)

Samuel Chapman Armstrong (Hampton University Website)

MIT Archives – Robert R. Taylor

Bela Pratt Sculpture of E. Winchester Donald

Trinity Church Art & History

The King’s Cup Bearer, Sermon in Memory of E. Winchester Donald, 1904

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