August 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 5
New Light on a Much-Loved Myth
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.
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.
In these appearances Carver was publicizing peanut values and product possibilities already known if not universally appreciated. An 1896 bulletin of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Peanuts: Culture and Uses , had discussed the legume’s worth in restoring nitrogen to the soil, its nutritional excellence, and the uses of peanuts and peanut oil in candies, soapmaking, flour, soups, salad dressing, muffins, cattle feed, griddlecakes, and other products and processes. The Agriculture Department had issued another comprehensive bulletin on peanuts in 1909, and its 1917 Yearbook had promoted the crop as a wartime substitute.
Carver did not explicitly claim that he had personally discovered all the peanut attributes and uses he cited, but he said nothing to prevent his audiences from drawing the inference. “I have just begun with the peanut,” he told the House committee. Thereafter he displayed an ever-growing quantity of peanut products at exhibits and personal appearances throughout much of the country and wrote about such intriguing new discoveries as “peanut nitroglycerine” in the Peanut Journal , issued by the Southwestern and Southeastern Peanut Associations.
When pressed for an accounting of his peanut products in 1937, Carver balked. “There are more than 300 of them,” he wrote. “I do not attempt to keep a list, as a list today would not be the same tomorrow, if I am allowed to work on that particular product. To keep a list would also give the Institute a great deal of trouble, as people would write wanting to know why one list differs from another. For this reason we have stopped sending out lists.”
After his death the Carver Museum, which he had helped create at Tuskegee, credited him with developing 287 peanut commodities. One hundred twenty-three were foods and beverages, 68 were paints or dyes, and the rest were livestock foods, cosmetics, medicinal preparations, and miscellaneous uncategorized items. The catalog was inflated by much near duplication: among the individual entries were bar candy, chocolate-coated peanuts, and peanut chocolate fudge; all-purpose cream, face cream, face lotion, and hand cream; thirty cloth dyes, nineteen leather dyes, and seventeen wood stains. Many items were clearly not original with Carver—even “salted peanuts” was on the list (though peanut butter was not). Nor could the efficacy of every preparation, such as a “face bleach and tan remover,” be taken for granted. Since Carver left no formulas for these products other than a single patented peanut cosmetic, later investigators were unable to evaluate or confirm his production of many of them.
Along with the peanut Carver championed the sweet potato, a nutritional complement also well suited to Southern soils. Man could live by the peanut and sweet potato alone, he asserted, for together they constituted a balanced ration. Again he publicized the crop’s potential in quantitative terms. “The sweet potato products number 107 up to date,” he told the congressional committee during his peanut presentation. “I have not finished working with them yet.”
Working almost entirely alone, Carver was uncommunicative about his laboratory procedures. A visiting chemist from nearby Auburn University found that he evaded all questions about how his products were made. G. Lake Imes recalled as “enigmatic” his replies to inquisitive visitors to his laboratory. Robert L. Vann, a black journalist, asked him if he had recorded the formulas for his many discoveries. “To my amazement,” Vann reported, “Dr. Carver looked at me and smiled and said, ‘I have all of these formulas, but I have not written them down yet.’”
What explanation of his scientific achievements Carver did offer was not calculated to satisfy other scientists. Speaking in 1924 at the Marble Collegiate Church in New York, he declared that he never used books in his work and depended on divine revelation for his product ideas and methods. In later addresses he often repeated his laboratory conversations with “Mr. Creator,” who told him what to do.
Although he was often acclaimed for the widespread practical application and influence of his work in agriculture and industry, Carver avoided discussing specifics here as well. In reality, neither peanuts nor sweet potatoes were employed significantly in any new application Carver discovered or suggested. Peanuts continued to go almost entirely into confections and baked goods, peanut butter, and oils. Because most of the nonstandard products created by Carver could be made more easily from other substances, they were essentially curiosities.
Nor did Carver play a significant role in converting Southern farmlands from cotton to peanuts. Despite his widely publicized efforts to promote peanut production and consumption, the greatest increase in the crop preceded his identification with it.
As early as 1909 the chief of the Agriculture Department’s Bureau of Plant Industry remarked that the peanut was rapidly becoming an important farm crop throughout the South. Annual American production had climbed from 3,500,000 bushels to 19,500,000 bushels in the twenty years after 1889. When output rose to over 40,000,000 bushels in 1916 the department called the phenomenon “one of the striking developments that have taken place in the agriculture of the South.”
Carver’s peanut bulletin, How to Grow the Peanut , did not appear until that year, and not until the next decade was he prominently associated with the crop. By then peanut production was actually declining from its 1917 peak. Alabama’s 1917 output was not reached again until the mid-1930’s. It is unlikely that Carver bore much responsibility for this eventual recovery; he observed in a personal letter in 1933 that the farmers of his own county were raising few peanuts. Clearly his influence, both local and regional, was limited.
How, then, did this man of modest, unspectacular achievement become the scientific wizard and agricultural revolutionary known to his and later generations? The progress of the Carver myth may be traced in the writings of journalists, popular biographers, publicists, politicians, and professional historians from the early 1920’s to the present.
It took root in 1921 when newspapers across the nation carried accounts of Carver’s congressional appearance. It attained full development a decade later with the publication of “A Boy Who Was Traded for a Horse” in The American Magazine of October, 1932. Author James Saxon Childers gave Carver full credit for increasing peanut production after the boll weevil invasion, then for stimulating demand by developing peanut products and markets. Carver received hundreds of letters in response to the article, many requesting help with personal problems.
Carver’s popular appeal increased with his advancing years. His mail soared again after the Reader’s Digest condensed the Childers article in February, 1937. Life followed in March with a picture story naming him “one of the great scientists of the U.S.” Later that year the New York Times praised his “300 useful products” from the peanut and “more than 100 products of varying human values” from sweet potatoes. These discoveries, the Times declared shortly before Carver’s death, had “memorably improved the agriculture of the South.”
“The world of science has lost one of its most eminent figures…,” President Franklin D. Roosevelt said of Carver’s passing on January 5,1943. “All mankind is the beneficiary of his discoveries in the field of agricultural chemistry.” Senator Harry S Truman, testifying a month later for the bill to make Carver’s birthplace a national monument, declared that “the scientific discoveries and experiments of Dr. Carver have done more to alleviate the one-crop agricultural system in the South than any other thing that has been done in the history of the United States.”
The only full Carver biography approaching objectivity appeared the year of its subject’s death. Rackham Holt’s George Washington Carver , recognizing Carver’s products as “not revolutionary in themselves,” held him most valuable as a publicist. But the book’s admiring, romantic tone perpetuated his existing image. An enthusiastic New York Times review by Vincent McHugh, subtitled “A Study in Genius,” erroneously credited Carver with originating dehydrated foods.
Later writers scaled new heights of fiction. In Melvin T. Rothwell’s George Washington Carver, A Great Scientist (1944), it was said that Carver had “stepped out of the heart of the lowly peanut into the heart of humanity…,” and that his success was due to “a beneficent Creator who whispered secrets into his ebony ear.” Ten years later the noted black author Langsten Hughes published Famous American Negroes , and, apparently unaware that Carver kept no laboratory records, cited his “formulas in agricultural chemistry that enriched the entire Southland, indeed the whole of America and the world.”
The fullest and most widely circulated recent exposition of the Carver legend came in 1966 with Lawrence Elliott’s George Washington Carver: The Man Who Overcame , condensed in the Reader’s Digest prior to publication. According to Elliott, Carver led much of Alabama to plant peanuts prior to the First World War before sufficient demand existed for the crop. “So engrossed had he been in staving off the evils of the one-crop system, so successful was he in promoting the peanut, that almost alone he had created a monster as cruel and unforgiving as the weevil itself.” Pressed by unhappy farmers, including an old widow “who timidly knocked on Dr. Carver’s laboratory door” to ask what to do with her surplus, he retired alone to his laboratory to commune with God and discover the first of “well over 300” peanut products, thereby saving the South from poverty. “By the time he died…scores of factories had been built to make them, and their range staggered the mind.”
Professional historians and other academics, often scornful of popular writers, were not immune to the myth. In A History of the South , published in 1936, historian William B. Hesseltine assigned to Carver “leading rank as an industrial scientist” for his many discoveries. A 1949 book from the University of North Carolina Press, Edward J. Dies’ Titans of the Soil , credited Carver with the establishment of major business enterprises. Historian Edgar A. Toppin’s 1971 Biographical History of Blacks in America Since 1528 held that “George Washington Carver freed the South from dependence on cotton by developing hundreds of uses’for peanuts and sweet potatoes.” The current Encyclopedia Americana and to a lesser extent the Britannica reflect the myth in their Carver entries.
Despite their assertions of his scientific wizardry and profound influence on agriculture and industry, most popular accounts have treated Carver’s professional accomplishments superficially. The man himself—careless of money, devout, humble—was the main attraction.
“He combines all the picturesque quaintness of the antebellum type of darkey, the mind of an amazing scientific genius, and the soul of a dreamer,” a 1923 article in the Atlanta Journal related. “And his career…is no less picturesque.” For those who found a black genius difficult to accept, the Journal offered an explanation: “Professor Carver’s nose, distinctly Arabic in type, hints of far-off ancestors who were possibly Egyptian, rather than African.…”
Much was made of Carver’s unconcern for wealth. Actually, he became involved in at least four commercial ventures, obtained two patents for pigments in addition to that for his peanut cosmetic, and granted over $60,000 to a foundation in his name at the close of his life. But his simple attire and habits and the limited nature and productivity of his ventures led most writers to ignore or deny his commercial activities. “He would permit no patents to be taken out on his discoveries, allow no commercialization of his name,” declared Congresswoman Clare Boothe Luce on the fourth anniversary of his death.
Carver’s religious nature was another among his appealing qualities. A devout Christian, he led Bible classes at Tuskegee and spent much time in prayer. His attribution of his success to God made him a popular subject for inspirational books and tracts.
“His most notable characteristic, aside from the great mental capacity which marks him as a genius, is his deep humility,” the Montgomery Advertiser reported in a 1929 front-page feature titled “Negro Genius Shows ‘Way Out’ for Southern Farmers.” Carver’s physical appearance was nothing if not humble, an image he enhanced by his devotion to old, worn clothing. Biographers eagerly seized upon his stereotypical “uncle” aspect as a foil to his brilliance, as in Hermann Hagedorn’s depiction of “a stooped old colored man in a saggy alpaca coat shuffling through the dust of an Alabama road.”
The journalists and other popular writers who embroidered on the man and his deeds for a receptive public must receive primary credit for the Carver myth. They were abetted by manufacturers of peanut products, whom Carver served as a living “Mr. Peanut,” and by Tuskegee Institute, in need of another prominent human symbol after Booker T. Washington’s death in 1915. But the man himself played no small part in the outcome.
Carver’s role was less one of active deception than passive complicity. In his presentations he blurred the distinction between creative discovery of new chemical syntheses and the production of items already known or requiring no scientific originality. Nor did he attempt to correct erroneous claims by others about him and his work. At best, he issued seemingly modest protestations. “How I wish I could measure up to half of the fine things this article would have me be,” he wrote to one author.
While laymen lacked the knowledge to see through the legend, most of those better qualified to appraise Carver’s contributions lacked the desire. Responding to an inquiry about Carver’s work in 1937, an Agriculture Department official hedged: “Dr. Carver has without doubt done some very interesting things—things that were new to some of the people with whom he was associated, but a great many of them, if I am correctly informed, were not new to other people.…I am unable to determine just what profitable application has been made of any of his so-called discoveries. I am writing this to you confidentially and without an opportunity to make further investigation and would not wish to be quoted on the subject.”
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.
Over the past two decades black scholars such as Herman R. Branson, E. Franklin Frazier, and Michael R. Winston have published books and articles containing informed assessments of Carver’s scientific work. Most have compared it unfavorably with the important work of such unpublicized black contemporaries as Ernest Everett Just, a productive Howard University biologist, and Charles Henry Turner, an authority on insect behavior. Carver’s much greater fame, they agree, derived from his folk appeal and his willingness to behave as whites wished blacks would behave. But the impact of these reassessments, limited in circulation, has been no match for the image perpetuated by the Reader’s Digest , countless textbooks and juvenile biographies, the Americana and Britannica encyclopedias, the New York Times , and the Washington Post . Legends—especially useful ones—die hard.