Born only two years after the civil war ended, Dr. Robert Russa Moton entered a world still clinging to the vestiges of slavery. He grew up on a sprawling plantation in Amelia County, Virginia. His mother, Emily, served in the big house, and his father, Booker, labored as a field hand. The Motons understood that their son, while blessed by emancipation, would be handicapped if he did not receive a good education. Emily Moton had risked her life by secretly learning to read during slavery. But even in freedom, she concealed her rudimentary reading ability from the plantation master and misses. Each night, under the fear of discovery, she shared her limited knowledge with her son.
During one of their late-night lessons, they were discovered. But the master of the plantation did not reproach Mrs. Moton. In fact, he allowed his youngest daughter to teach both mother and son. Dr. Moton’s early experience of learning how to read impressed upon him the great value of education and stirred in him a thirst for new ideas, greater knowledge, and a deeper understanding of the world around him.
When the time came for Robert Moton to go to college, his certain poverty did not discourage him. He worked in a lumberyard and eventually saved enough to attend Hampton Institute. After graduating from Hampton in 1890, he began working for the school as Commandant overseeing the discipline of young men. He completed his post-graduate work in 1895. At Hampton, Dr. Moton became exposed to influential black thinkers of the day. Booker T. Washington became not only a mentor, but a dear and trusted friend. Together they traveled throughout the South talking to black groups about racial progress.
In 1905, Dr. Moton married Elizabeth Hunt Harris. She died the following year. While the sorrow of losing Elizabeth never passed, Moton’s heart eventually began to heal. In 1908, he met and married Jennie Dee Booth, a home economics instructor at Hampton. Together they raised five children. Jennie worked alongside Dr. Moton and equally matched his commitment to improving the lives of African Americans.
Over the next decade, Dr. Robert Russa Moton became one of the most recognized names, not only in the black community, but in America. At the death of his friend, Booker T. Washington, he left Hampton and became the second president of Tuskegee Normal School. Under Dr. Moton’s leadership, the Tuskegee endowment grew from $2.2 million to $7.7 million. Such an endowment allowed Dr. Moton to transform Tuskegee into one of the premier institutes dedicated to training and educating African Americans. During the 1925–1926 academic year, Tuskegee announced its first college-level courses. Soon after, the Institute offered its first BS degrees in education and agriculture.
Dr. Moton’s influence on African American society in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s is unparalleled. In 1922, when speakers were being considered to deliver the keynote address at the dedication ceremony of the Lincoln Memorial, Dr. Moton was the obvious choice. President Harding delivered remarks, as did Robert Lincoln, the memorialized President’s son. But the primary task fell to Dr. Moton who had by now grown accustomed to addressing men and women of political importance. This address, however, was different. With one speech, he had the power to reach tens of thousands with a message of racial unity and progress.
Dr. Moton stood with his trademark dignity and grace and looked out over the crowd numbering well over 50,000. He praised Lincoln for being willing to make a stand and unravel the thread of inequality that had been woven into the fabric of our nation.
On behalf of the “Negro” people of the nation, Dr. Moton pledged, “With malice toward none, with charity for all, we dedicate ourselves and our posterity, with you and yours, to finish the work which he began, to make America an example for all the world of equal justice, equal opportunity for all.” After delivering these final words full of hope for unity and equality, he returned to his seat in a roped off, “colored only” section. He did not allow such ironies in his life to deter him from his mission of racial progress.
His relationship with Julius Rosenwald, the Chairman of the Board for Sears and Roebuck, led to hundreds of Rosenwald Schools being built throughout the South to educate black students.
Dr. Moton was largely responsible for the construction of a Veteran’s Hospital in Alabama for black soldiers returning from World War I. Despite protest from the white community and threats by the Ku Klux Klan, he saw to it that black administrators and doctors governed the facility. W.E.B. DuBois praised Dr. Moton’s fight to have the hospital staffed by black medical professionals.
Dr. Moton served as an advisor to Presidents Wilson, Harding, Coolidge, Hoover, and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Countless universities and organizations honored Dr. Moton, including the National Negro Business League, which elected him president. He served for more than twenty years in that position.
In 1935, Dr. Moton retired to Cappahosic, Holly Knoll—his Georgian-style home on the banks of York River in Gloucester, Virginia. For him, retirement did not mean giving up his lifelong work of building bridges to solve the problems of the day. Coveted was the invitation to “Come to Cappahosic.” At Cappahosic, the greatest African American minds converged to debate and address issues of African American advancement.
When Dr. Robert Russa Moton died on May 31, 1940, his accomplishments were great. Unfortunately, he has become one of the unsung heroes of the African American community. In the eight decades since his death, Dr. Moton’s name may be forgotten, but his legacy of faith and ideas lives on through the work of The Gloucester Institute.