Moton, Robert Russa

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Moton, Robert Russa

August 26, 1867
May 31, 1940

Born in Amelia County, Virginia, and raised in Prince Edward County, Virginia, Robert Russa Moton, an educator, was educated by the daughter of his parents' plantation master. He entered Hampton Institute in Hampton, Virginia, in 1885, but three years later he interrupted his work to study law and teach. Moton received a license to practice law in 1888, then returned to Hampton. He studied and drilled in the student cadet corps, reaching the rank of assistant commandant. After graduation in 1890 he was named commandant of the corps and given the rank of "major," the title he would use for the rest of his life. He was the school disciplinarian, assigned to check on students' rooms and work. He had faculty and administrative responsibilities and was a liaison between the white faculty and the black student body.

During his later years at Hampton Moton also became a protégé and lieutenant of Booker T. Washington, president of Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama. He became active in Washington's National Negro Business League and accompanied Washington on speaking and fund-raising tours. Moton echoed Washington's views, emphasizing the need for self-improvement, thrift, and industrial education. In 1909 he helped the Tuskegee leader preview and comment on a draft of President Taft's inaugural address. In the early 1910s, after the creation of the NAACP, he tried to restrain its members from attacking accommodationist ideas. In 1915 he founded the Virginia Cooperative Association, a farmer's aid organization, which he hoped would be the basis of a nationwide movement.

In 1915, following the death of Booker T. Washington, Moton was chosen to succeed him as principal of Tuskegee Institute. Moton was never the charismatic figure Washington was, and he let Washington's political machine dissolve, but he continued Washington's work and racial leadership role. He lectured and wrote pieces extolling the Tuskegee philosophy and became chair of the National Negro Business League in 1919. He also became active in forming government commissions, which he thought a better avenue than civil rights legislation for resolving racial conflict. During World War I, Moton spoke at Liberty Bond rallies and tried to drum up support for the war effort. In 1918, after a spate of lynchings in the South, he helped form the Commission on Interracial Cooperation, which thereafter annually published lynching statistics. Moton retained a measure of Washington's control over federal political patronage to African Americans and advised government on racial policies. In 1918, after he privately warned President Woodrow Wilson of the growth of black unrest in America, Wilson sent him to France in order to speak to black soldiers and make a report on their treatment. He reported on his experiences in his autobiography, Finding a Way Out (1920).

During the 1920s Moton restructured Tuskegee, adding an accredited junior college program and planning a four-year curriculum. The school offered its first B.S. degree program in 1926. A skilled fund-raiser, Moton tripled Tuskegee's endowment. His concern for white donors' sensibilities caused him to crack down on black self-assertion and dissent at Tuskegee. However, he was willing to defend what he considered African Americans' best interests. He lobbied successfully for the creation of a black Veterans Administration hospital at Tuskegee Institute, to be staffed by African-American doctors and nurses. The Ku Klux Klan threatened violence unless he installed white medical staff, and a hundred Klansmen marched on Tuskegee. Moton barricaded the campus and called on alumni to help defend the institute. His actions won him widespread applause among blacks, including W. E. B. Du Bois, a frequent ideological adversary. Moton's general philosophy was expressed in his book What the Negro Thinks (1929). Moton forthrightly demanded an end to legislated racial inequality. However, he accepted segregation and called for compromise and black patience and work rather than activism to achieve civil rights aims.

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s Moton undertook public duties. He devised and lobbied for government assistance with National Negro Health Week. He succeeded Booker T. Washington on the board of trustees for Fisk University. In 1924 he founded and became president of the National Negro Finance Corporation in Durham, North Carolina. In 1927 he headed a committee of African Americans involved with the Hoover presidential commission on the Mississippi Flood Disaster. He served on President Herbert Hoover's National Advisory Committee on Education and recommended federal funding to reduce racial inequality in education. He also served on a commission on education in Liberia and wrote a strong report on educational inequities in Haiti. For his work Moton received the Harmon Award in Race Relations in 1930 and the NAACP's Spingarn Medal in 1932. Moton retired from Tuskegee in 1935 and died five years later at his home in Capahosic, Virginia, where the Robert R. Moton Foundation was later established in his memory to aid black scholars.

See also Du Bois, W. E. B.; Hampton Institute; Lynching; Spingarn Medal; Tuskegee University


Anderson, James D. The Education of Blacks in the South, 18601935. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988.

Bennett, Lerone Jr. "Chronicles of Black Courage: Robert R. Moton risked life in fight for Black doctors at Tuskegee Veterans Hospital." Ebony 57, no. 9 (July 2002): 158160.

Butler, Addie Louise Joyner. The Distinctive Black College: Talladega, Tuskegee, and Morehouse. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1977.

Harlan, Louis, and Raymond W. Smock, eds. The Booker T. Washington Papers, vols. 3, 1013. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 19721989.

greg robinson (1996)
Updated bibliography