Moton was born in Amelia County on August 26, 1867, but grew up on a farm in nearby Prince Edward County. His father, Booker Moton, was a leader of farm hands and his mother, Emily Brown Moton, was a cook for the farm’s white owners. Both were formerly enslaved. Responsible for doing house chores, Moton was educated by his mother and the daughter of the plantation’s owner before attending a free school for Black children. His initial associations with white people were friendly, which probably determined his future attitude regarding the ability of the two races to get along.
At age eighteen, after working in a lumber camp in Surry County for two years, Moton sat for an entrance exam to enroll at the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, a school for Black people founded in 1868 (normal schools specialized in teacher training). He failed to pass the exam but resolved to work until he did, hiring on at the school’s sawmill before finally being admitted in 1885. While at Hampton, Moton continued to work during the day and attended classes in the evening, and during a break before his senior year, he taught school in Cumberland County and labored on a farm. He graduated in 1890 and soon after passed the bar with the help of the Prince Edward County superintendent of schools and a local lawyer who allowed him access to his library.
Following his graduation, Moton remained at Hampton as assistant commandant at the behest of, one of the school’s founders. In 1891 Armstrong appointed Moton commandant of the male student cadet corps, the equivalent of a dean of men, responsible for supervising the students and administering the rules and regulations of the school. In this position for nearly twenty-five years, “the Major,” as Moton came to be known, established himself as one of the foremost Black leaders in the country. In 1900 he was elected president of the National Negro Business League, and in 1908 he was made a trustee of the Anna T. Jeanes Fund, which supported Black rural schools. In 1905, Moton married Elizabeth Hunt Harris, who died the following year. He married Jennie Dee Booth in 1908, and the couple had five children, including Charlotte Moton Hubbard (1911–1994), who was a deputy assistant secretary of state for public affairs from 1964 until 1970.
Moton toured the South during his years at Hampton with his mentor and friend Booker T. Washington, founding principal of the Tuskegee Institute, a school for Black people that had opened for classes in Tuskegee, Alabama, on July 4, 1881. The two promoted vocational education and biracial cooperation and jointly raised money for their institutions from white northern philanthropists. The two men shared the belief that Black people had to lift themselves up through education—by acquiring skills that would make them economically independent and worthy of acceptance in the larger white community. While condemning acts of racial discrimination and violence, they did not openly challenge the system of white supremacy that had become ensconced in the South in the years following Reconstruction (1865–1877); instead, they expressed optimism about racial progress in the country.
Moton, moreover, was passionate about creating means of assistance for Black people in America through education. He helped to create and raise funds for the Industrial Home School for wayward Black girls and endeavored to improve opportunities for Black home demonstration agents—teachers who provided vocational training in home-making, agriculture, and other non-academic fields—especially for Hampton graduates. In 1912, he founded the community-building, whose slogan was “Better Schools, Better Health, Better Homes, Better Farms.”
Tuskegee and World War I
In 1915, Washington died of congestive heart failure at the age of fifty-nine. He had written that his friend Moton was a man of “kind good humor, thorough self-control, and sympathetic disposition.” Washington’s words functioned as a personal recommendation for Moton’s future career at Tuskeegee when, that same year, Moton was hired to succeed Washington as principal of the Tuskegee Institute. In his twenty years at the school, Moton followed Washington by continuing to emphasize vocational education, but he also integrated liberal arts into the curriculum, establishing bachelor of science degrees in agriculture and education. He improved courses of study, especially in teacher training, elevated the quality of the faculty and administration, constructed new facilities, and significantly increased the endowment by maintaining his connections to wealthy white benefactors in the North. Although he never escaped Washington’s shadow, he made important, lasting contributions to the Tuskegee Institute.
During World War I, Moton successfully lobbied the federal government for an Officers Training Camp for Black men to be located at Tuskegee. He also arranged for Emmett Scott, one of his advisers, to be appointed special assistant to the secretary of war on racial matters. In 1918, U.S. president Woodrow Wilson, despite being a segregationist and apologist for the(KKK), personally dispatched Moton and two others to France to investigate the conditions under which Black soldiers served. In particular, Moton was responsible for scrutinizing accusations of cowardice and misbehavior.
One American general had accused Black soldiers under his command of being “dangerous to no one but themselves and women.” Another general confronted Moton with what he claimed were twenty-six accusations of rape against various Black soldiers. Moton’s investigations turned up only seven real cases, however, and only two of those resulted in convictions (one in an execution). Still, Moton was not completely forthcoming with the president about the discrimination he witnessed, and he encouraged Black soldiers not to protest segregation when they returned to the United States. He also urged white soldiers to support the fair treatment of Black soldiers.
Race relations only deteriorated following World War I. As riots riveted the nation and the Ku Klux Klan revived, Moton encouraged U.S. presidents Wilson and Warren G. Harding to speak out against lynching. He traveled the South, preaching both racial pride and cooperation, and helped to establish and raise funds for the Commission on Interracial Cooperation. In 1923, Moton provoked personal threats from the KKK when he insisted that Black doctors staff a Black veterans’ hospital to be constructed on land donated by Tuskegee.
A renaissance man, Moton was well-read, athletically and musically inclined, and a skilled fisherman. He wrote two books—Finding a Way Out: An Autobiography (1920) and What the Negro Thinks (1929)—while still managing to lead the singing of spirituals at Sunday evening vespers. He advised presidents on issues of concern to the Black community and arranged for federal appointments for Black people. He was appointed by U.S. president Herbert Hoover to serve on the Mississippi Valley Flood Disaster Commission and on the United States Commission on Education in Haiti. In 1922, he delivered a major address at the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. In addition, Moton was a trustee of numerous Black colleges and several philanthropic funds and was the recipient of many honorary degrees and awards, notably the Spingarn Medal for service to African Americans.
. The high school now houses the Robert Russa Moton Museum.