June 24, 2024

How Black Latinos found a future in an Alabama HBCU after slavery – USA TODAY

In the 1900s, an Afro-Cuban skilled worker named Eleno Lino was on the hunt for education. 
Lino sought help far from the Caribbean island that had abolished slavery a little over a decade before and was left plundered after fighting for independence from Spain. 
He sent a letter to the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama seeking admission to the school founded by Booker T. Washington that had gained prominence for educating the descendants of enslaved people.
“Having heard by a friend of mine, the opportunities afforded by your night school to poor colored men” who are anxious to have a “better education, I write you these few lines to see if there is any room for me,” read the letter written by his friend. 
Lino was one of the dozens of Black Cubans and Puerto Ricans drawn to Jim Crow Alabama in the late 1890s through 1920s to attend what was then known as the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute under Washington, a formerly enslaved man who became one of the foremost Black leaders in the United States.
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Inspired by Washington’s “up from slavery” message, the African-descended children of Cuban nationalists to artisans attended Tuskegee, connecting their challenges as oppressed Black people in the world and obtaining an education. 
The Tuskegee-Cuba connection is a reminder that Black history is very much a part of Latino history, said history professor Frank Andre Guridy at Columbia University in New York City. 
“They (Afro-Latinos) have a shared history with African Americans in the struggle against racism, the struggle for survival, the struggle for economic opportunity, the struggle for artistic expression,” said Guridy, author of “Forging Diaspora: Afro-Cubans and African Americans in a World of Empire and Jim Crow,” which outlined Lino and other Afro-Latino efforts to get an education at Tuskegee. 
In an 1898 letter to the editor of the Christian Register, Washington made a direct connection between Black Americans and Afro-Cubans in an appeal to get Latino students to pursue a Tuskegee industrial education, which emphasized trades such as bricklaying or sewing.
“In the present depleted condition of the island, industrial education for the young men and women is a matter of the first importance,” he said in the letter. “It will do for them what it is doing for our people in the (U.S.) South.”
After the Spanish-American War that helped free Cuba from Spain ended in 1898, Cuba was in disarray.
Many sugar plantations, which were a major source of income for the island, had been burned to the ground. The Spanish sent thousands of Cubans to concentration camps.
In 1886, slavery had been abolished in Cuba — making it the last country in the Americas and the Caribbean before Brazil to have left behind the practice. Still, by 1902, when the Cuban republic was established, there were thousands of Black Cubans who had been brought to the country from slave ships from Africa, historians said. 
Much of the Cuban independence movement was based on justice for residents, both Black and white. But following the Spanish-American War, American imperialism on the island brought over the United States’ racial ideas at the time, meaning more systematic discrimination against Cubans of color, said Louis Perez, a history professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 
“These are people who fought for racial justice and social justice. When the United States arrived, the U.S. undid all the aspirations of this population,” he said.
When many Black Cubans read Washington say, “I pity from the bottom of my heart any nation or body of people that is so unfortunate as to get entangled in the net of slavery,” in his autobiography, “Up from Slavery,” the message resonated. 
The book was translated into Spanish with hopes of bringing it to Cuba, Guridy said. The title was “De Esclavo á Catedrático,” or from slave to professor. A literal translation was rejected because it might become “political” trouble, he said. 
The text gained a wide readership, and families sent Washington a flood of letters, asking if their daughters and sons could attend the school. Washington also sent recruiters to Cuba and Key West, Florida, a hub at the time for people of Cuban descent. 
Paul Ortiz, a history professor at the University of Florida, said other Black Americans were also moved by liberation efforts on the island.
A Reconstruction-era Black politician in South Carolina introduced resolutions against slavery on the island, historians said. A Cuban solidarity campaign grew in the United States.
“The struggle against slavery was never just national … it was hemispheric wide or international,” Ortiz said. “And so there were many African Americans who were in the U.S., who were intimately familiar with the brutal system of slavery in Cuba because they experienced that themselves in the U.S.” 
Part of the way to lift up Black Cubans would be to send some to Tuskegee, but there was also a program to send many white, or white presenting, Cubans to Ivy-league schools such as Harvard University in Massachusetts.
Although historians say both programs were aimed at expanding American imperialism, many Cubans would have viewed them as opportunities to leave a war-torn country and become more educated.
“Cubans perceive this as for what it was: a great opportunity going to the U.S., achieving education, learning a different language, then going back to their own country and probably climbing the social ladder,” said Jorge Felipe-Gonzalez, a history professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio.
Papers compiled by Washington’s biographer, Louis Harlan, show people eager about the prospect of going or being sent to Tuskegee.
Luis del Risco, a Tuskegee student from Havana, got the school to accept his brother Armando, Guridy’s research says. One of the few Black Hispanic female students, Celestina Ramírez, got her sister accepted into the school with a scholarship.
“These students are now at Tuskegee taking the regular courses of training and are making a credible record,” Washington wrote, of several Cuban and Puerto Rican students. “It is the plan to have the return to their island homes and give their people the benefit of their education.”
Even though some of the foreign students expressed excitement about being able to attend Tuskegee, it still would’ve been a difficult adjustment for many.
Most of the students coming from Latin countries did not speak English. They were coming to the American South, where strict racial codes existed that severely limited the freedoms of formerly enslaved people. 
It could also be dangerous. More than 4,000 lynchings occurred in several Southern states between 1877 and 1950, according to an Equal Justice Initiative report.
Founded in 1881, Tuskegee came about in that climate. Washington accepted the principal role after attending school and teaching at Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Virginia, later Hampton University.
When Washington arrived at Tuskegee, he found that no facilities had been set aside for the school, the university said. The school opened in a shanty. 
Eventually, Washington bought a former 100-acre plantation, where students built classrooms, a chapel and other facilities. 
The school quickly grew along with Washington’s prominence. His incremental approach to addressing segregation drew donations from many white donors. 
“In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers,” he famously said, “yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.”
By the late 1800s, the 540-acre Tuskegee Institute had an enrollment of more than 400 pupils and became a hot spot for international students from Africa and the Americas. 
Inventor and scientist George Washington Carver was on the school faculty. Students were offered training in carpentry, cabinet-making, printing, and shoemaking. 
Marybeth Gasman, a historian at Rutgers University in New Jersey, with a focus on historically Black colleges, said Washington was trying to create education that would get jobs for the masses of Black Americans.
But Gasman said there was a disconnect with the real experiences of Black people. 
“The different skills that they might be learning at Tuskegee or Hampton like bricklaying, or sewing or things like that, you have to think during slavery African Americans were already doing all those things,” she said. 
Some students soon soured on this type of education. The curriculum also drew fierce criticism from sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois, who believed that Blacks needed a liberal arts education to be the master of their fates.  
Like other students, Cuban and Puerto Rican students complained at times about the school, demanding better clothing and food. 
“We started to write the N.Y. Herald about how the Cubans were treated at Tuskegee,” signed eight Latino students, “but when we reflected and thought of the harm it would do the school, we refrained from doing so; especially on your account, because you are responsible for us and we do not want to put you to any trouble.”
Guridy said he was hesitant to say that the student’s complaints were outliers from Black American students.
Tuskegee students coming from other parts of the country and international students were both undergoing a cultural transition as they adjust to living in the South, he said. 
“All these students are trying to find themselves at this point,” he said.
Even as students graduated, many kept up with the school and held onto diaspora connections. 
By the 1920s, the number of Afro-Latino students attending Tuskegee would dwindle, in part, because of Washington’s death in 1915, Guridy said. More educational opportunities opened up on the island and other historically Black schools became destinations for international students.
But the legacy of the Afro-Latino students lived on, Guridy said. 
One of the many alumni was Luís Delfín Valdés. An architect, he built the Club Atenas — an Afro-Cuban cultural and recreational society in Havana. Poet and writer Langston Hughes visited the club. 
Hughes said in his diary after a visit to Cuba: 
Go to the Black Countries
Cuba — Haiti — West Indies, Brazil, Africa …
Negro artists — exchange of ideas, musicians and painters, new rhythms, new colors and faces. Poets and writers new background and basis for comparisons. 
Tiffany Cusaac-Smith covers race and history for USA TODAY. Click here for her latest stories. Follow her on Twitter @T_Cusaac

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