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Ralph Ellison
            Ralph Ellison

Albert Murray
           Albert Murray
(Photo by Jeanie Thompson)

This is a beautiful place. It looks like a small town, the food is good enough and I'll like it here. I'm going to work hard to stay. Ralph Ellison, writing his mother in Oklahoma about Tuskegee.

When Ralph Ellison arrived for his freshman year at Tuskegee Institute during the summer of 1933, he looked forward to the opportunity to study on a campus founded by Booker T. Washington, though he faced financial hardship to stay enrolled. He made the best of a job in the bakery at Tompkins Hall, where he made cornbread for the faculty and churned ice cream for pay of fifteen cents an hour.

Later Ellison's work situation improved when he was assigned to the Frissell Library. There he met a younger student named Albert Murray, whose habit of folding books into his pockets irritated Ellison. When Murray returned a  

crumpled library book, Ellison curtly asked him, What do you think this is, a pocket edition? A lifelong friendship between two great writers was established at Frissell's book return counter.

  Tuskegee University President's Mansion. Entrance, Tuskegee University.
Grey Columns, the President's Mansion of Tuskegee University.

Tuskegee University President's Mansion

Entrance, Tuskegee University

Grey Columns, the President's Mansion of
Tuskegee University


Ellison did not graduate from Tuskegee. He moved to New York before his third year of college and, with the encouragement of Richard Wright, he began to write fiction and book reviews for New Challenge magazine. He became active in a campaign to release the Scottsboro Boys from jail in Alabama and noted in the margin of one of his manuscripts: You have to leave home to find home. The sudden death of his mother in 1937 was the "breaking point," according to Ellison, that matured his writing. In 1953, he won the National Book Award for his groundbreaking novel Invisible Man.

  Macon County Courthouse, Tuskegee.
Booker T. Washington statue, Tuskegee University campus.
The Oaks, Tuskegee, home of Booker T. Washington.

Macon County Courthouse, Tuskegee

Booker T. Washington statue, Tuskegee
University campus

The Oaks, Tuskegee, home of Booker
T. Washington


Ellison's correspondences with Albert Murray during the 1950s - a conversation about civil rights, writing and jazz - were collected for the book Trading Twelves. At Tuskegee during their college days, Murray found a short poem written by Ellison on scratch paper left in the pages of a Frissell Library book. For the duration of their friendship, Murray never forgot the poetic music of Ralph Ellison scribbled on a note that no one was intended to discover: Death is nothing. Life is nothing. How beautiful these two nothings!

  Encyclopedia of Alabama

For more information on Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray, link here to their listing in the Encyclopedia of Alabama supported by the Alabama Humanities Foundation.

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