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Robert Russa Moton, 1867-1940
Finding a Way Out: An Autobiography
Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1921, c1920.

Summary

Robert Russa Moton, renowned African American educator, was born on a plantation in Amelia County, Virginia in 1867. He attended college at the Hampton Institute before leaving to study law independently in 1888. After passing the Virginia bar, he taught for one year but then returned to Hampton, where he graduated in 1890. Moton worked at Hampton for the next twenty-five years, during which time he was in close contact with Booker T. Washington, who served as his mentor. When Washington died in 1915, Moton became president of the Tuskegee Institute. He tripled the Institute's endowment, added an accredited junior college program, and created a hospital on campus to be run by African American doctors and nurses. While at Tuskegee, Moton also served as an advisor to several politicians in Washington. As racial tensions escalated in the U.S. during World War I, President Woodrow Wilson sent him to France to meet with African American soldiers and report back on their treatment. In addition to Finding a Way Out: An Autobiography (1921), Moton published two other significant works: What the Negro Thinks (1929) and The Tuskegee Student (1934). He died in 1940.

Moton composed Finding a Way Out: An Autobiography (1921) after his trip to France during World War I. The autobiography opens with a description of his family's African ancestors who were forced into the slave trade and sold at auction in Virginia in the mid-1700s. After tracing his family's movements in rural Virginia, he describes his father's experience as a slave on John Crowder's plantation in Prince Edward County and as a body servant in the Civil War. At the war's end, his father married Emily Brown, and the two accepted jobs with the Crowders. Moton's earliest memories of life on the Crowder plantation include his mother's efforts to transform their cabin into a night school for former slaves. Although Moton was too young to participate, his mother's enthusiasm for these sessions made a significant impression on him.

Education is a prevailing theme in the narrative. Shortly after his family relocated to the Vaughan plantation in 1867, Moton began attending the first free school for African Americans in his county. He then worked in a lumber camp for several years before deciding to attend the Hampton Institute. Moton describes his formative years at Hampton, including his coursework, cultural experiences, and social interactions with black, white, and Native American students. After graduating, he raised funds for the school, which required him to travel extensively throughout the North. It was on these trips Moton became acquainted with Booker T. Washington. Moton offers his impression of this famous African American leader and his many accomplishments. He closes the narrative with a discussion of Tuskegee's role during World War I.

Work Consulted: Smith, Jessie Carney, ed., Notable Black American Men, Detroit: Gale, 1999.

Armistead Lemon
Harris Henderson

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