How The ‘The Gilded Age’ Brought Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute to Life

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The Gilded Age Season 2 Episode 5 “His Grace the Duke” introduces us to more than one great, influential man. While Bertha Russell (Carrie Coon) finds herself cooing over the fictional Duke of Buckingham (Ben Lamb) in New York, intrepid journalists Peggy Scott (Denée Benton) and T. Thomas Fortune (Sullivan Jones) travel to Tuskegee to meet real life groundbreaker Booker T. Washington (Michael Braugher). The trip not only puts Peggy in peril of experiencing the even more violent strains of racism rampant in the South, but it also allows her to see just how Black Americans were historically working to raise the community in spite of this horrific opposition. Once again, The Gilded Age marries fact with its fiction to show contemporary audiences what life was like 150 years ago.

Peggy Scott and T. Thomas Fortune are all the way south of the Mason Dixon line because they want to report on what Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute was accomplishing down south. In The Gilded Age Season 2 Episode 4 “His Grace the Duke,” they arrive at Tuskegee, spend the night with the Mr. and Mrs. Washington at their historic home of Oaks, and get up early the next day to interview students. Albeit maybe not the kinds of students modern audiences would expect. Instead of studying the classics or accounting, the students at the Tuskegee Institute were learning practical skills like farming and sewing.

“Well, you know, it was like a farming institute,” The Gilded Age executive producer and writer Sonja Warfield told Decider. “Here’s what was amazing — and we did put this in the show — is that they were building the school and studying at the same time. So everything they did was practical. So they would you know, milk the cows and plant the soil and then put the fertilizer under a microscope. They’re studying farming and everything had its own purpose.”

Booker T. Washington (Michael Braugher), T. Thomas Fortune (Sullivan Jones), and Peggy Scott (Denee Benton) in 'The Gilded Age'
Photo: HBO

In next week’s episode of The Gilded Age, T. Thomas Fortune and Peggy Scott will get to see the grand opening of the dormitory the students built themselves — another detail Warfield was excited the show touched upon.

“I just thought that was amazing because when I went to college I just moved into the dormitory. I didn’t build it,” she said.

As it turns out, The Gilded Age didn’t even have to build the whole dormitory. Nor did the show even have to go south to bring Tuskegee, Alabama to life. Basically, they just had to use the show’s proverbial backyard, i.e. the backlot.

“We’re very fortunate that our backlot, which is in Bethpage, Long Island is — you know, our exterior street set — is right next door to Old Bethpage Village recreation. They say recreation because it’s other buildings that were put together from other historic sites to make a village. It was not originally a village,” Shaw said, before revealing he had already used the site for the beloved Apple TV+ show Dickinson.

“So it was literally right there and we had some work to do certainly with the new dormitory building and that kind of stuff — we built the bottom of the new dormitory building and then the rest was extended with CG — but for the most part, it was there.”

Another bit of serendipity for Shaw? He was able to find a house at Old Bethpage that looked awfully similar to Booker T. Washington’s historic home, Oaks.

“The layout, you know, worked pretty well. So, that was just a gift,” Shaw said. “We knew we were next door to that place for, you know, a couple of years and we had no idea that would come into play for us.”

The real Tuskegee Institute was founded on Independence Day 1881 as part of an agreement between a white politician, former Confederate Colonel W.F. Foster, and local Black leader Lewis Adams. Foster would start the school, meant for the advancement of Black citizens, if Adams could convince the overwhelmingly Black constituency to vote for him. The school was apparently the dream of Adams and a local former slave owner George Campbell, the latter of whom was responsible for hiring Booker T. Washington to run the school as principal. With the help of his wife Olivia, Washington was able to attract wealthy donors from the north, allowing the construction of the dormitory.

The school is now known as Tuskegee University, or TU, and although it has a long, illustrious history of matriculating academics and even war heroes like the Tuskegee Airmen of World War II, the school is also infamously associated with the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment. From 1932 to 1972, poor Black men were deceived into believing they were receiving medical treatment, when in fact, they were being conned into suffering from syphilis without any treatment as a part of an experiment to study the natural progression of the horrible disease.

Today Tuskegee University is home to nearly 3,000 students. In 2020, MacKenzie Scott donated $20 million to the school, the largest charitable contribution in Tuskegee’s history.