- Historic Sites
George Washington Carver And The Peanut
New Light on a Much-Loved Myth
August 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 5
In 1961 the National Park Service, seeking an evaluation of Carver’s achievements for its interpretive programs at the George Washington Carver National Monument, commissioned a study by the University of Missouri’s Department of Agricultural Chemistry. The memorandum transmitting the report to Washington reflected concern about the findings: “While Professors Carroll and Muhrer are…careful to emphasize Carver’s excellent qualities, their realistic appraisal of his ‘scientific contributions’…is information which must be handled very carefully as far as outsiders are concerned. To put it plainly, it seems to us that individuals or organizations who are inclined to be rather militant in their approach to racial relationships might take offense at a study which superficially purports to lessen Dr. Carver’s stature.…Our present thinking is that the report should not be published, at least in its present form, simply to avoid any possible misunderstandings.”
Fear of stirring racial sensitivities by treating Carver candidly helped perpetuate the myth. But how to account for its widespread acceptance in the first place? As Richard Bardolph has observed in The Negro Vanguard , “…no white scientist with precisely the same achievements would have been called a ‘wizard’ or ‘the greatest industrial chemist in the world.’” Clearly, Carver’s race and the purpose he served as a black achiever were essential to his fame.
At a time when few of their number gained national recognition, black Americans had an obvious stake in the legend. For them Carver was a much-needed success symbol—another sign that blacks could stand on an equal footing with whites. The respect attained by one like Carver, they could hope, would extend in some measure to the race as a whole.
But the mass media most responsible for Carver’s reputation were governed by and directed to white Americans, including those indifferent or hostile to black advancement. Without white promotion and acceptance the legend would hardly have flourished.
Not surprisingly, the stake most whites had in the myth differed from that of most blacks. By placing a token black on a pedestal, whites of varying persuasions could deny or atone for prejudice against blacks as a class. For Southern whites, the presence of a black achiever among them could prove that their society was not oppressive to blacks as such; those who failed to achieve could only blame themselves. Finally, a black achiever of the right sort could set a suitable example for others of the race.
Booker T. Washington had been the right sort of black achiever for most whites. They acclaimed his advocacy of industrial education and self-help for blacks and his outward accommodation to the Southern social order. In some ways Carver was even more appealing. Unlike Washington, who occasionally stepped across the color line and worked undercover for black rights, Carver was wholly apolitical. “Rising or falling,” he wrote philanthropist George Peabody, “I believe is practically inherent within the individual.…I believe in the providence of God working in the hearts of men, and that the so-called Negro problem will be satisfactorily solved in His own good time, and in His own way.”
White Southerners found Carver’s adherence to the rules and customs of segregation exemplary. When two nonconforming white visitors to Tuskegee asked him to join them for dinner, he excused himself. In 1923, Success Magazine , which dubbed him “Columbus of the Soil,” approvingly noted how he had “deferentially remained in the background until all of the white men had been heard” by the Ways and Means Committee.
His field of work .was another point in his favor. Agriculture was a suitably humble occupation; in choosing to work with the “lowly” peanut, Carver showed that he knew his place vocationally as well as socially. And as a scientist who credited his work to divine inspiration, he pleased those disturbed by the incursions of contemporary science on traditional religious belief.
In serving the purposes of both blacks and whites, then, Carver’s person was far more important than the substance of his work. If he would be sufficiently famous to serve those purposes, however, he must have major accomplishments beyond personal attributes alone. Thus, at the hands of the mythmakers—conscious or otherwise—he became the scientific wizard who saved the South.