Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, and Albert Murray are three literary legends of the twentieth century, pivotal to the Harlem Renaissance, Modernism, and cultural theory. Each of these authors spent their formative years in HBCUs, and have artistic and biographical ties to Tuskegee University and Macon County, Alabama—a region that serves as a backdrop to and central inspiration for their works.
Though long and internationally-famed for its strengths in and contributions to STEM, in recent years, Tuskegee University began to conceptualize their curriculum more holistically by expanding arts and humanities requirements for all students. Thus, with NEH support, English faculty developed Literary Legacies of Macon County and Tuskegee Institute, a multidimensional project that includes course enhancements, faculty-student research, workshops for teachers and faculty, and community engagement activities with the aim of enhancing student learning through Tuskegee’s profound yet often overshadowed literary heritage.
As part of our NEH for All initiative, we partnered with Tuskegee to understand the impact this project is having on students. Results demonstrate the profound benefits of incorporating local heritage into curricula and extending research and community engagement opportunities to students.
Survey results show that only 14 percent of student respondents had personal or familial ties to Macon County before attending Tuskegee. After taking courses from faculty who attended Literary Legacies workshops and incorporated local literary heritage content into their course, 86 percent of student respondents reported learning more about Tuskegee’s local culture and/or literary history. Students gained a deeper appreciation for Tuskegee’s legacy and made connections between the past and their current context. For example, one student wrote: “I gained a greater appreciation for the school I attend and the city it's in.[...] Great minds grew from this soil.” Another said, “I was able to learn more about Tuskegee through the authors we studied and how they had an influence on this community, and why it might be how it is today.”
In addition to enhancing course materials, Literary Legacies also hosted public events like “Soul of Zora,” a quilt exhibition inspired by Zora Neale Hurston’s life and work displayed at the on-campus Legacy Museum, and created a sustainable digital humanities site to disseminate historical documents, teaching materials, and cultural artifacts. These projects connect students with professional development and research opportunities. Two students expressed their appreciation for experience working with the quilt exhibit: “Not only were we able to experience the Zora Neale Hurston quilt exhibit, but we were fortunately given the opportunity to deinstall the quilts. This [was] as a monumental and precious moment.” Another said, “Deinstalling [the quilt exhibit] gave me insight into a career I [am now] considering pursuing.”
As Literary Legacies continues to implement the many dimensions of the project, NEH for All will continue to document the myriad ways Tuskegee is connecting their students and community to their robust history and heritage.
Thumbnail image: Photo courtesy of Tuskegee University.
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