GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A new find is now on display at the Grand Rapids Public Museum: a set of 69 previously uncovered magic lantern slides showing off the Tuskegee Institute.
Chief curator Alex Forist says his team found the slides in March 2022 while digitizing items from the museum’s archives. He reached out to local historian Dr. Randal Maurice Jelks for help identifying them.
“He sent me the photos through email, and I said, ‘Oh, that’s Tuskegee!’ … ‘Oh, that’s (Tuskegee Founder and President) Booker T. Washington, that’s the faculty.’ And he was shocked. I said, ‘Well, you shouldn’t be. There’s a long history of Booker T. being here,’” Jelks told News 8.
Forist was able to connect with an archivist at Tuskegee to confirm the finding. The GRPM team believes the photos in the slides were taken around the turn of the 20th century.
“These are slides that are used to make your pitch. You’re going to the next city and you are raising money for your small school,” Jelks said.
Some of the slides show the students building the school, while others show different aspects of the school’s “domestic sciences” program.
“You see faculty teaching students how to plane and cut wood. You see them gathering in class. These are all important things that, if I’m advertising my university, my college, I want people to see that we are being productive. That we are offering our students something good and something powerful,” Jelks said. “They are beautiful in the sense that the students built Tuskegee. It resonated with the business community of Grand Rapids, people who are proverbially pulling themselves up by their bootstraps.”
The Tuskegee Institute, now referred to as Tuskegee University, is a private historically Black college in Alabama. It is most well known as the school that produced George Washington Carver and American World War II aerial aces the Tuskegee Airmen.
But for Grand Rapids, the close ties to the Tuskegee Institute come from the school’s founder, Washington. The educator traveled throughout Michigan, including at least four stops in Grand Rapids, raising funds and support for his school.
According to Jelks, Washington was such a respected figure that members of the Grand Rapids community held a memorial for him after his death in 1915.
“It confirms a lot of stuff. You saw in the papers that Booker T. was coming to speak. Or people from Grand Rapids were going down to Tuskegee. So, there was a clear relationship,” Jelks said.
The slides are now on display as part of the museum’s “Streets of Grand Rapids” exhibit and are also available online.
“Sharing these images and slides with the public is exciting,” Forist said in a release. “This is what museums are all about, preserving the physical pieces of the past so that we can learn from and be inspired by them in new contexts today and into the future.”