In the 1900s, an Afro-Cuban skilled worker named Eleno Lino was in search of an education.
Lino looked for help far from the Caribbean island that had abolished slavery a little more than a decade earlier and was pillaged after fighting for independence from Spain.
He sent a letter to Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute asking for admission to the school founded by Booker T. Washington that had gained prominence for educating the descendants of enslaved people.
“Having heard from 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 room for me “, he read the letter written by his friend.
Lino was one of dozens of black Cubans and Puerto Ricans drawn to Jim Crow Alabama in the late 1890s through the 1920s to attend what was then known as the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute under Washington , a formerly enslaved man who became a leading black man. leaders in the United States.
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Inspired by Washington’s “out of slavery” message, the African-descended sons of Cuban nationalists to artisans attended Tuskegee, connecting their challenges as oppressed black people to the world and getting an education.
The Tuskegee-Cuba connection it’s a reminder that black history is a very important part of Latino history, said Frank Andre Guridy, a professor of history 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 describes Lino and other Afro-Latino efforts to obtain a Tuskegee education.
Blacks in other countries see the appeal of Tuskegee
In an 1898 letter to the editor of the Christian Register, Washington made a direct connection between black Americans and Afro-Cubans in a call for Latino students to receive an industrial education at Tuskegee, which emphasized trades such as bricklaying or the sewing
“In the present state of exhaustion of the island, industrial education for youth and women is a matter of first importance,” he said in the letter. “He will do for them what he is doing for our people in the (US) South.”
After the Spanish-American War that helped free Cuba from Spain ended in 1898, Cuba was in disarray.
Many sugar plantations, which were an important source of income for the island, had been burned. The Spanish sent thousands of Cubans to concentration camps.
By 1886, slavery had been abolished in Cuba, becoming the last country in the Americas and the Caribbean before Brazil left the practice behind. Still, in 1902, when the Cuban republic was established, there were thousands of black Cubans who had been brought to the country on slave ships from Africa, historians said.
Much of the Cuban independence movement was based on justice for residents, both black and white. But after the Spanish-American War, American imperialism on the island brought the racial ideas of the United States at the time, meaning more systematic discrimination against Cubans of color, said Louis Perez, a professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. .
“These are people who fought for racial justice and social justice. When the United States came, the US took away all the aspirations of this population,” he said.
When many black Cubans read Washington they say, “I pity from the bottom of my heart any nation or group of people who are so unfortunate as to be entangled in the web of slavery,” in his autobiography, “Up from Slavery ,” the message echoed.
The book was translated into Spanish in hopes of bringing it to Cuba, Guridy said. The title was “De Esclavo á Catedrático”, or from slave to teacher. A literal translation was rejected because it could become a “political” issue, he said.
The text gained a large number of readers, and families sent a flood of letters to Washington, asking if their sons and daughters 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 the liberation efforts on the island.
A black Reconstruction-era politician in South Carolina introduced anti-slavery resolutions on the island, historians said. A Cuban solidarity campaign grew in the United States.
“The fight against slavery was never just national … it was hemispheric or international,” Ortiz said. “And so there were many African Americans who were in the US, who were intimately familiar with the brutal system of slavery in Cuba because they themselves experienced it in the US.”
“A great opportunity” for black Latinos
Part of the way to uplift 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 like Harvard University in Massachusetts.
Although historians say both programs were aimed at expanding US imperialism, many Cubans would have seen them as opportunities to leave a war-torn country and become more educated.
“Cubans perceive it as what it was: a great opportunity to go to the United States, get an education, learn a different language, then go back to their own country and probably climb the social ladder,” said Jorge Felipe-Gonzalez , history teacher. at the University of Texas at San Antonio.
Articles collected by Washington biographer Louis Harlan show people anxious about the prospect of going to or being sent to Tuskegee..
Luis del Risco, a Tuskegee student from Havana, got his brother Armando accepted at the school, according to Guridy’s research. One of the few black Hispanic students, Celestina Ramírez, got her sister accepted to the school on a scholarship.
“These students are now at Tuskegee taking the regular courses of training and are making a creditable record,” Washington wrote of several Cuban and Puerto Rican students. “It is the plan to return to their island homes and give their people the benefit of their education.”
From Cuba to Alabama
Although some of the foreign students expressed excitement about being able to attend Tuskegee, it would still have been a difficult adjustment for many.
Most of the students who came from Latin countries did not speak English. They were coming to the American South, where strict racial codes existed which severely limited the freedoms of formerly enslaved people.
It could also be dangerous. More than 4,000 lynchings occurred in various southern states between 1877 and 1950, according to a report by the Equal Justice Initiative.
Founded in 1881, Tuskegee emerged in this climate. Washington accepted the lead role after attending school and teaching at the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Virginia, later at Hampton University.
When Washington arrived at Tuskegee, he found that no facility had been reserved for the school, the university said. The school opened in a shack.
Washington eventually purchased a 100-acre former plantation, where students built classrooms, a chapel, and other facilities.
The school grew rapidly 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 may be as apart as the fingers,” he famously said, “but as 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 students and became a hot spot for international students from Africa and the Americas.
Inventor and scientist George Washington Carver was on the school’s faculty. Students were offered training in carpentry, cabinetmaking, printing and shoemaking.
Industrial education becomes a way
Marybeth Gasman, a historian at Rutgers University in New Jersey who focuses on historically black colleges, said Washington was trying to create an education that would get jobs for the masses of black Americans.
But Gasman he said there was a disconnect with the actual 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 that during slavery African Americans were already doing all of those things,” he said.
Some students soon became embittered by this type of education. The curriculum also drew fierce criticism from sociologist WEB Du Bois, who believed that blacks needed a liberal arts education to be masters of their own destinies.
Like other students, Cuban and Puerto Rican students sometimes complained about school, demanding better clothes and food.
“We started to write in the NY Herald about how Cubans were treated at Tuskegee,” eight Latino students signed, “but when we reflected and thought about the harm it would do to the school, we refrained from doing so; especially on your own, because you are responsible for us and we don’t want to get you into any trouble.”
Guridy said he was hesitant to say the student’s complaints were atypical of black American students.
Tuskegee students from other parts of the country and international students were going through a cultural transition as they adjusted to living in the South, he said.
“All these students are trying to find themselves at this point,” he said.
Even when students graduated, many kept up with the school and maintained connections with the diaspora.
In the 1920s, the number of Afro-Latino students attending Tuskegee would decline, 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 former students was Luís Delfín Valdés. An architect, he built Club Atenas, an Afro-Cuban cultural and recreational society in Havana. Poet and writer Langston Hughes visited the club.
Hughes told his journal after a visit to Cuba:
Go to the Black Countries
Cuba—Haiti—West Indies, Brazil, Africa…
Black artists: exchange of ideas, musicians and painters, new rhythms, new colors and faces. Poets and writers new backgrounds and bases for comparisons.
Tiffany Cusaac-Smith covers the race and the story for USA TODAY. Click here to see their latest stories. Follow her on Twitter @T_Cusaac.