Robert Russa Moton was born August 26, 1867 in Amelia County, Virginia. His mother, a plantation cook, secretly taught him to read. When they were discovered by the plantation owner, the owner's daughter begin helping with the lessons. Moton later went to one of the free schools that were started in the South during reconstruction. He attended Hampton Institute (now Hampton University), graduating in 1890 and staying on as part of the staff. He became Commander of Cadets the next year, a position equivalent to Dean of Men.
Moton traveled throughout the South raising funds for Hampton and promoting vocational education, often in the company of Booker T. Washington of Tuskegee Institute. Both men believed that job training was crucial for African American advancement and both were willing to work within the Jim Crow limitations of the times, seeking to cooperate and coexist with whites. When Washington died in 1915 Moton took his place as President of Tuskegee, going on to expand its liberal arts curriculum and increasing endowments through wealthy donors in the North.
Tuskegee Airmen, and Moton Field was named in his honor. President Wilson sent him to France to inspect the African American troops, and he later served as an advisor to Presidents Harding, Coolidge, Hoover, and Roosevelt.
Moton gave the keynote address at the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in 1922, during which he said "Twelve million black men and women in this country are proud of their American citizenship, but they are determined that it shall mean for them no less than for any other group, the largest enjoyment of opportunity and the fullest blessings of freedom." In 1923 he brought a VA hospital for African Americans to Alabama, facing opposition from the Ku Klux Klan because of his insistence that African American administrators and doctors be hired.
Robert Russa Moton Museum, which preserves the history of civil rights in education, is housed in the former Moton High School in Farmville, Virginia. Students walked out of the school in 1951 when the local school board would not approve expenditures for the school, even though there were no desks for teachers or students and the school was so crowded that classes were held in a school bus. The students filed a lawsuit which was one of the five presented as part of the Brown case.
Moton was the first president of the National Negro Business League, founded in 1900 by Booker T. Washington to promote the "commercial and financial development of the Negro". In 1912 Moton founded the Negro Organization Society of Virginia, an umbrella group for existing community organizations dedicated to "Better Schools, Better Health, Better Homes, Better Farms." He wrote his autobiography Finding a Way Out in 1920, followed by What the Negro Thinks in 1929. He died on May 31, 1940 at the age of 72.