Today’s commemorates my hometown hero. Yep, George Washington Carver and I both spent our early years in rural southwestern Missouri near the town of Diamond (Diamond Grove in George’s day). The following is the version of Carver’s life that mirrors that I long ago learned by heart as a result of multiple visits to the George Washington Carver National Monument.
The Carver Monument, created on July 14, 1943 when Franklin Roosevelt signed an order appropriating $30,000 on for its creation, is itself significant as the first national monument dedicated to an African-American and also the first to a non-President.
A Personal Aside: My recall of my years of residence in Diamond, MO is that the administrator of the George Washington Carver National Monument was always African American. Because of the National Park Service’s employment requirements for Park Management staff, the Carver Monument Superintendent was one of the rare college graduates, other than teachers, in the community. Further, it turned out that the Superintendent and his family were, more often than not. from an urban area. Consequently, I grew up – despite the casual racism rampant in the local culture, imbued with the conviction that African Americans were more cultured, educated, and sophisticated than hillbillies like me.
Carver’s Birth, Kidnapping, and Childhood
Born about 1864 (the exact year is unknown) on the farm1 of Moses Carver, a successful horse trader, near Diamond Grove, Missouri, George Washington Carver soon became an orphan. His father had died in an accident before George’s birth.2 Then, when still an infant, George and his mother, who had been purchased as a slave by Moses Carver, were kidnapped by raiders to be re-sold.3 A tracker hired by Moses Carver returned George to the farm but never found his mother.4
Moses and Susan Carver, who were childless, raised Carver and his 6 year old brother, Jim.
Because of several bouts of illness and his consequent frailty, George was not assigned to work in the fields as his brother did but instead helped with household chores and gardening, becoming so skilled at the latter that he became known as the “plant doctor.” He also became proficient in cooking, needlework, and other domestic skills as well as exhibiting a talent for playing the guitar and fiddle.
The Education Of George Carver
With no educational facilities open to Blacks nearby, he learned to read, write and spell at home. When he was about eleven and deemed old enough to leave home, George was sent to Neosho (10-15 miles distant), where he boarded with boarding with a childless black couple while he attended a school for African Americans, .
At 13, Carver, with the blessing of his foster parents, left with other African Americans who were traveling west to travel to Kansas. Carve spent the next several years wandering through towns in Missouri, Kansas and Iowa, earning money through whatever work he could find in mostly rural, all-white communities, using patience and a modest, nonthreatening demeanor to overcome prejudice.
Over the years, Carver sent several letters to colleges, finally being accepted at Highland College in Highland, Kansas. On his arrival there, however, he was immediately rejected once he was discovered to be an African American.
In 1890, Carver’s journey brought him to Simpson College in Winterset, Iowa, where he enrolled to study piano and painting.5
Soon, however, Etta Budd, his art instructor, convinced him to pursue a different course – a career in “scientific agriculture,” which she promoted as a more profitable field. That Ms Budd’s father was the Director of the Iowa State College Department of Horticulture was no doubt a factor in this decision making process.
Consequently, in 1891, Carver became the first African American to enroll at Iowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts, which is today Iowa State University.
Earning his tuition by opening and running a laundry business, Carver found time not only for his job and his studies but to become a leader in the YMCA and the debate club, work in the dining rooms and as a trainer for the athletic teams, and reach the rank of captain, the highest student rank, of the campus military regiment. He also wrote poetry, which was published in the student newspaper, and painted. Two of his paintings were exhibited at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.
After he received a bachelor’s degree in agricultural science in 1894, he spent the next two years as assistant botanist for the College Experiment Station, working in plant pathology and mycology and publishing several articles.
Carver received a master’s degree and was appointed to the teaching staff, becoming Iowa State’s first African American faculty member, in 1896 – the same year the Supreme Court embraced segregation with its ruling supporting the Plessy v. Ferguson decision, which declared “separate but equal” was constitutional.6
Soon afterward, he was invited by Booker T. Washington to join the faculty of Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute as the head of the agricultural program. He was to stay at Tuskegee, remaining unmarried and living in one of the dormitories, for the rest of his life, while becoming known as the “Wizard of Tuskegee.”
He repeatedly turned down publicity and royalties for his inventions as well as several lucrative job offers, including one from Thomas Edison, who offered Carver an annual salary of $100,000 and state of the art facilities to move to Orange Grove, New Jersey to work at the Edison Laboratories,7 and another from Henry Ford, said to have been one of Carver’s closest friends,8 preferring to stay at Tuskegee.
The Miracle Worker
Most folks, if they know anything about Carver, know that he “invented peanut butter.” Well, he didn’t. He did, however, do much to popularize its use. And, he did from 1903 to 1920, create 325 products from peanuts9 (including peanut oil, peanut flour, candies, cosmetics, dyes, cereal milk, ice cream flavorings, and faux marble tiles made from peanut husks), more than 100 products from sweet potatoes, 75 products from the pecan, dozens of others from discarded corn stalks, and still others from common clays. By the end of his career, he had created hundreds of needed goods from more from a dozen other plants native to the South.
In 1921, Carver appeared before the House Ways and Means Committee to discuss his work with peanuts, testimony that helped pass a tariff on imported peanuts and made him a national hero, the subject of several biographies and a movie. For many years, he was one of a handful of African Americans mentioned in American textbooks.
These products contributed to rural economic improvement by offering alternative crops to cotton that were beneficial for the farmers and for the land. During this time, Carver also carried the Iowa State extension concept to the South and created “movable schools,” bringing practical agricultural knowledge to farmers, thereby promoting health, sound nutrition and self-sufficiency.
Dennis Keeney, director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, writes in the Leopold Letter newsletter about Carver’s contributions:
Carver worked on improving soils, growing crops with low inputs, and using species that fixed nitrogen (hence, the work on the cowpea and the peanut). Carver wrote in The Need of Scientific Agriculture in the South: “The virgin fertility of our soils and the vast amount of unskilled labor have been more of a curse than a blessing to agriculture. This exhaustive system for cultivation, the destruction of forest, the rapid and almost constant decomposition of organic matter, have made our agricultural problem one requiring more brains than of the North, East or West.
“Crop rotation was far from a new idea, in those days,” said Michael Dillon, the Field’s botany curator. “The Egyptians had been rotating crops in the time of the pyramids, but it hadn’t been tried in the Cotton Belt.”
Carver was also a deeply religious man and agreed to share his belief in racial equality. During the 1920s and 1930s, he traveled throughout the South delivering his message of racial harmony -that faith in Jesus was the means by which barriers of racial disharmony and social stratification could be destroyed.
George Washington Carver died in 1943.
The Iowa State University site lists some of his honors:
He received many honors in his lifetime and after, including a 1938 feature film, Life of George Washington Carver; the George Washington Carver Museum, dedicated at Tuskegee Institute in 1941; the Roosevelt Medal for Outstanding Contribution to Southern Agriculture in 1939; a national monument in Diamond Grove, Mo.; commemorative postage stamps in 1947 and 1998; and a fifty-cent coin in 1951. He was elected to the Hall of Fame for Great Americans in 1977 and inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1990. In 1994, Iowa State awarded him the degree, Doctor of Humane Letters. In recent years, Dr. Carver has also been recognized by being named to the USDA Hall of Heroes (2000) and one of 100 nominees for the “The Greatest American,” series on the Discovery Channel (2005).
The line form the Trib article that seems to best fits the man is
Carver was a visionary so far ahead of his time he might well have felt at home in today’s world
The article goes on to quote scholar Peter Duncan Burchard:
He was an ecologist, he was the ultimate conservationist, he was a powerful proponent of nature-centered education, his scientific ethics were impeccable, he was a visionary who worried about man exhausting the Earth’s natural resources so that his research presages biochemical engineering.
The Other George Washington Carver
This is not, however, the end of the story of Carver. More accurately, it’s not the only George Washington Carver story. That’s the subject of the next post, George Washington Carver – Hero or Hype?
Photos of George Washington Carver National Monument by Michael Reed
Originally posted Feb 5, 2008 at 1HeckOfAGuy.com, a predecessor of AllanShowalter.com
- Many publications call Carver’s birthplace a “plantation.” If the pertinent definition of plantation is the one given in Wikipedia, ” a plantation is usually a large farm or estate, especially in a tropical or semitropical country, on which cotton, tobacco, coffee, sugar cane, or trees and the like is cultivated, usually by resident laborers,” I find it difficult to reconcile that notion with the the land in Southwest Missouri, which is best known for growing rocks. As far as I know, plantations of the Gone With The Wind sort were not found near Diamond. The homes depicted in the Monument’s historical display had more in common with log cabins than with Scarlett O’Hara’s Tara [↩]
- An alternate story is that George’s mother never revealed the name of his father [↩]
- The kidnappers are variously described as “slave raiders” and “Confederate militiamen,” but little is known of their identities. [↩]
- An alternate story has it that George was found unharmed by neighbors and was traded back to his owners in exchange for a racehorse. [↩]
- While at Simpson, he also displayed a flair for singing. [↩]
- See The Black Collegian [↩]
- See Black Inventors [↩]
- See Famous Missourians. That source also notes that Ford had an elevator was installed in Carver’s dormitory at Tuskegee so that Carver could get to his laboratory more easily in his later years [↩]
- An impressive listing of the products Carver developed from peanuts is available at Tuskegee Institute Web Site [↩]