George Washington Carver And The Peanut

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The election of a peanut-growing President has evoked much journalistic analysis of his rural Southern roots. One political observer credited an earlier peanut personality at a black school not far from Plains, Georgia, with “a more important role in Carter’s destiny than latter-day supporters like Andrew Young or Maynard Jackson or Martin Luther King, Sr.” Writing in the Washington Post , Douglass Cater went on to recall how “George Washington Carver, born a slave, set up the primitive laboratory at the Tuskegee Institute to become ‘the father of chemurgy’ and ‘the Peanut Wizard,’ working in tandem with the boll weevil to rid the South of its dependence on the one-crop cotton economy.…Carver demonstrated that the lowly ‘goober’ not only could enrich soil exhausted by cotton growing…but held myriad commercial uses. Spurred by Dr. Carver, peanut farming transformed the economy of Sumter County and lifted the Carter family out of its hard-scrabble existence.”

George Washington Carver was among the best-known American figures of this century and perhaps the single most renowned black American of his time. A white society unaccustomed to ascribing brilliance to blacks acclaimed him a genius. “Professor Carver has taken Thomas Edison’s place as the world’s greatest living scientist,” Henry Ford announced near the end of Carver’s life; Senator Champ Clark of Carver’s native Missouri called him “one of the foremost scientists of all the world for all time.” Upon Carver’s death in 1943, Congress passed and President Roosevelt signed legislation making his birthplace a national monument—an honor previously granted only Washington and Lincoln. Last spring Carver was enshrined in the Hall of Fame for Great Americans in New York City.

Carver’s scientific discoveries and his transformation of Southern agriculture can truly be described as legendary—in the fullest sense. For Carver was both less and more than he seemed. What he did was less important than what he was and the larger purposes his existence served for blacks and whites alike.

George Carver began life sometime during the Civil War as the property of Moses Carver, a southwestern Missouri farmer of moderate wealth. “My sister, mother and myself were ku clucked and sold in Arkansaw,” he once wrote of a kidnapping by borderraiding bushwhackers during his infancy; his owner gave a horse in payment for his recovery, according to later accounts. The orphaned child stayed on the Carver farm near Diamond Grove for a decade after emancipation, then left to seek schooling in nearby Neosho. During these years he developed the love of plants that would remain with him ever after. “Day after day I spent in the woods alone in order to collect my floral beauti[e]s and put them in my little garden…,” he later recalled.”…strange to say all sorts of vegetation seemed to thrive under my touch until I was styled the plant doctor, and plants from all over the county would be brought to me for treatment.” Painting and music were additional subjects of what he called his “inordinate desire for knowledge.”

Moving on from place to place, supporting himself by laundering, cooking, and other odd jobs, Carver completed his secondary education, worked briefly as a Kansas City stenographer, tried homesteading in western Kansas, and in 1890 enrolled at Simpson College in Iowa to study art. But his botanical interest triumphed: he transferred to the Iowa Agricultural College at Ames and there earned his B.S. degree in 1894. Remaining as an assistant botanist on the experiment station staff, he obtained an M.S. in agriculture two years later.

Professor James Wilson, who would serve as Secretary of Agriculture under Presidents McKinley, Roosevelt, and Taft, took Carver under his wing at Ames. In turn, the student transmitted his botanical enthusiasm to another, much younger, future Agriculture Secretary: Henry A. Wallace later fondly remembered “many a Saturday afternoon collecting plant specimens in the woods and fields about Ames” with Carver.

When the state of Alabama enacted legislation to support an agricultural school and experiment station for blacks at Tuskegee Institute in February, 1897, Tuskegee’s able principal, Booker T. Washington, was prepared. The previous April Washington had asked Carver to head the new program. “Of course it has always been the one great ideal of my life to be of the greatest good to the greatest number of ‘my people’ possible,” Carver responded before accepting, “and to this end I have been preparing my life for these many years; feeling as I do that this line of education is the key to unlock the golden door of freedom to our people.”

Carver’s enthusiasm for agricultural education had cooled somewhat by the time he arrived at Tuskegee in the fall of 1896. “I do not expect to teach for many years,” he informed the school’s finance committee, “but will quit as soon as I can trust my work to others, and engage in my brush work, which will be of great honor to our people showing to what we may attain.…” Nor was agricultural training popular with Tuskegee students, many of whom saw schooling as a means of escaping the farm. When the agriculture department graduated only two students in 1910, a dissatisfied Booker Washington removed Carver from charge and made him head of a new Department of Research.