In Search of Moorings
MCKAY ARRIVED in Charleston, South Carolina, in the summer of 1912. It was the first stop on his way to Alabama's famous black industrial college, Tuskegee Institute.1 There McKay joined other blacks, many of Hispanic background, to study agronomy.2 From the outset, McKay experienced difficulty in adjusting to his new environment. Within six months he became so disenchanted that he left Tuskegee to attend Kansas State College in Manhattan, Kansas. His reasons for leaving Tuskegee remain obscure. Most students of McKay have accepted the explanation he himself offered in an article published five years later in Pearson's magazine. McKay remarked that he had departed from Tuskegee because of its "semi-military machine existence."3 Few acquainted with Tuskegee under the leadership of Booker T. Washington would deny the school's concern for discipline and order, but McKay's departure from the institution may have been prompted by reasons other than the one he suggested.
From all indications, he actually found the discipline of the school distressingly lax. A few months after his arrival McKay sent an article to the Daily Gleaner, Jamaica's largest newspaper, in which he observed that the morals of the students were being affected by the close contact of the boys and girls in the dining halls and on the ball field.4 His criticism troubled Tuskegee's administration, who wished to prevent harm to their school's positive public image. Washington's secretary, Emmett Scott, ordered an inquiry into McKay's accusations. John Whittaker, a trustee at the school, headed the investigation and concluded that, while McKay was considered a serious student with a "keen and observant eye," he had a tendency to be too critical. Nevertheless, Whittaker advised taking steps to ensure that the social life of the students should not detract from their studies.5
The following poem, written in memory of Booker T. Washington, makes no mention of the oppressive and restrictive environment McKay cited as reason for his abrupt departure: