- Historic Sites
George Washington Carver And The Peanut
New Light on a Much-Loved Myth
August 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 5
Carver continued teaching for some time on a limited basis, but without distinction. “There is criticism among teachers and students to the effect that in your teaching you do not pursue a regular, logical and systematic course, that you jump about from one subject to another without regard to the course of study laid down in the catalogue,” Washington warned him in 1912. “Some of your students are getting rather restless.”
Carver enjoyed little more success at overseeing the school farms, which Washington expected to be model paying operations. John Washington, Booker’s brother, questioned Carver’s superintendency in 1902: “The fences, gates, etc. are not kept up, and, as a rule, seem to have no attention, until somebody not connected directly with the Agricultural Department takes ahold of the matter.” When Booker Washington found fifty bushels of sweet potatoes rotting in the basement of the Agricultural Building he rebuked Carver sternly: “It is not very becoming to be teaching agriculture on one floor and on the next floor have such an exhibition as these potatoes presents of the want of proper methods of caring for agricultural products.” G. Lake Imes, a long-time faculty colleague, recalled Carver as one who “did not fit very well into the college routine.”
Carver was happier with experimental work, which became his chief concern after 1910. The Tuskegee Experiment Station served as a testing ground for crop varieties and fertilizers. In the laboratory he analyzed soil, feed, well water, and other materials submitted from the school and its vicinity. Because the rural poor around Tuskegee could ill afford commercial feed and fertilizer, he demonstrated the value of substitutes like acorns for feeding hogs and swamp muck for enriching croplands. Staffed by blacks and directed to a black farm population largely unaffected by progressive agricultural practices, the Tuskegee station addressed an important need in Alabama’s black belt.
Carver attempted to reach a wider audience with the experiment station bulletins, leaflets, and circulars that appeared under his name from 1898 to his death. They contained little that was new. Much of his message was summarized in a leaflet distributed by the institute before his arrival: “Do not plant too much cotton, but more corn, peas, sugar-cane, sweet-potatoes etc., raise hogs, cows, chickens, etc.” The extent of Carver’s efforts to broadcast such advice to rural blacks was unprecedented. Yet the actual impact of his bulletins and other extension work was moderate at best. Whatever success he had in uplifting the rural poor could scarcely have accounted for the nationwide prominence he would attain. That came through his identification with the peanut.
A few years after his arrival at Tuskegee, Carver raised a small quantity of Spanish peanuts at the experiment station. Recognizing the soil-building and nutritional values of the legume, he mentioned it in a 1905 bulletin, How to Build Up Worn Out Soils . Eleven years later he focused on the crop in another, How to Grow the Peanut and 105 Ways of Preparing It for Human Consumption , in which he credited recipe books and other sources. Not until the postwar years did he assume an innovative role with peanuts. In 1919 he wrote a Birmingham peanut-processing firm about a milk substitute he had just produced from the plant:”…it is without doubt the most wonderful product that I have yet been able to work out, and I see within it, unlimited possibilities.”
Learning of Carver’s work, the United Peanut Associations of America asked him to appear at their convention in Montgomery in September, 1920. Peanut growers, millers, and manufacturers faced with declining prices had formed the organization to lobby for a protective tariff on imported peanuts. Carver’s presentation on “The Possibilities of the Peanut” was enthusiastically received despite “doubts lingering in the minds of the audience as to the advisability of having one of the negro race come before them…,” according to a peanut trade journal. “When the time comes when this question must be threshed out before the American Congress,” Alabama Congressman Henry B. Steagall announced in reference to the tariff, “I propose to see that Professor Carver is there in order that he may instruct them a little about peanuts, as he has done here on this occasion.”
Carver’s appearance before the House Ways and Means Committee in January, 1921, launched his national identity as “the peanut man.” Some of the congressmen, patronizing him as “uncle” and “brother,” greeted Carver as an amusing diversion, but he held the committee’s interest well over his allotted time. Again he based his presentation on a great diversity of products that he demonstrated or described, including candy, ice cream flavoring, livestock feed, and ink.