One Tuskegee educator’s mission to preserve legacy through storytelling and iPad
In Tuskegee, Alabama, the roots of American history run deep.From the founding of Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute — now Tuskegee University — in 1881 and first led by Booker T. Washington, to the agricultural discoveries of George Washington Carver, who taught alternative methods of farming with peanuts, soybeans, and sweet potato, to the famed Tuskegee Airmen, the first all African American pursuit squadron in the US Army Air Corps in 1941, there is a thread that forever connects the city’s past with its future.
At Tuskegee Public School (TPS), where every student has received an iPad for learning in the classroom and at home as part of Apple’s Community Education Initiative, principal and 22-year US Army veteran Tiffany Williams is on a mission to preserve that history for the city’s future generations.
“I have a deep connection with Tuskegee University and the Tuskegee Airmen,” Williams says. “My grandparents taught at Tuskegee University; my grandmother and Daniel ‘Chappie’ James were good friends.”
Daniel “Chappie” James Jr., a fighter pilot in the US Air Force who served in World War II and flew nearly 200 combat missions in Korea and Vietnam, was a Tuskegee Airman who became the first four-star African American general in the US military and the commander of NORAD. He was also the inspiration for Williams’s brother’s (Daniel McKinley Sullen) nickname: Chap.
In a city where approximately 550 out of roughly 8,200 people are veterans, Williams is determined to preserve the city’s legacy through her students, including through Tuskegee Public School’s veterans project. As in previous years, students are using iPad to capture and share stories of local veterans this Veterans Day, despite COVID-19 keeping students out of classrooms for the time being.
This year’s conversations with veterans are a continuation of the Macon County Veterans Oral History Project, launched in 2017 as a collaboration between Auburn University and TPS to help sixth graders interview military veterans and produce digital content as part of the Veterans Oral History Project for the Library of Congress.
Jazaria Black, an eighth grader at Tuskegee Institute Middle School, understands the importance of passing stories and history down through generations, and looks forward to sharing with her classmates the insights she learns from local veterans. “It helps us understand how the world changes and how our community has changed,” she says.
“It makes me proud that I get the chance to talk to veterans one on one,” Jazaria says. “I can share their stories with people in my community, and outside the community.”
“Our students are taking interviews and pictures, and they’ve been able to capture the souls of this moment all because of iPad,” Williams says. “We would not have been able to connect Macon County with the world the way that we have without this technology.”
Recognizing that TPS students were increasingly unaware of their own connections to their community, Williams set out to reveal some of the untold stories of the people — and the places — they crossed paths with every day. Armed with iPad, students can conduct research on nearby buildings, homes, and people.
“Growing up in that history and being able to see how Tuskegee has transitioned over the years, and the hands that helped Tuskegee become what it is today, … those stories are just so precious to me because they’re so deeply rooted in me,” Williams says. “A lot of our children don’t have that history anymore.
”Every school in Macon County now gives an iPad to each student. Williams feels it’s a tool that empowers teachers and students from kindergarten through high school with key technological skills. “We’re now able to offer students more advanced skill sets starting in kindergarten,” she says. “The playing field has been leveled, and everybody has a chance to connect and grow and soar.”
One mile from TPS, Tuskegee University and its legacy beckon future engineers, doctors, educators, scientists, and service members. With an engineering school that ranks in the top 25 percent, Tuskegee University showed Williams early on the benefits of gaining skill sets to prepare students for future success.
“One thing I like to tell the children in Macon County is that ‘you are definitely talented, and you have something to offer the world,’” Williams says. “‘Don’t ever let anybody tell you you don’t have anything to offer because of where you come from.’” In fact, they have more to offer than they know because of where they come from.
“I believe in the Macon County school system, in our students, and in our community, because they have so much to offer. And I want our students to come back to Macon County and to keep it going. They’re going to have to be the ones that make change. They’re going to be the ones that make it happen.“Tiffany Williams, US Army veteran and principal of Tuskegee Public School
As TPS prepares for in-person learning again, Williams is steady in her mission to ignite students’ interest in their community and to position them for future careers by providing them with new skill sets. “We’re going to implement a Wednesday STEM day when we’re back,” Williams says. “All of the teachers and students will be coding.
“If you look at the way the world is changing, coding is in everything,” she continues. “Our students are able to go to the career tech center their kindergarten year, so they can see robots or the other advanced training we have that will inspire them to say, ‘Oh, this is what I want to do.’”
Since iPad enables students to code from a basic to advanced level, Williams believes when students are exposed early on to different career fields — agtech, for instance — they will have an advantage once they graduate.
“A lot of our children are at a disadvantage because we don’t have what other cities have,” Williams says. “So you have to have those people who truly love Tuskegee to see their potential. I believe in the Macon County school system, in our students, and in our community, because they have so much to offer. And I want our students to come back to Macon County and to keep it going. They’re going to have to be the ones that make change. They’re going to be the ones that make it happen.”
To learn more about Apple’s support for veterans, visit apple.com/newsroom/2020/11/honoring-americas-veterans.