Went to the George Washington Carver Monument National Park today. I woke up and drove 1 hr and 20 minutes to rural Missouri. Just before I crossed the border I was on a road called “It’ll Do” and had a giggle fit. I can imagine the people were working the road and then got tired and said “It’ll Do”.
When I arrived to the site I met with Curtis Gregory who let me watch a film about Dr. Carver before we walked around the property. The film was adequate in terms of showing me pivotal years and moments of Dr. Carver’s life. He was born in Diamond Grove where the National Park is built. At age 12 he walked 8 miles to Neosho which I drove through on the way back to Bentonville. A black couple Andrew and Mariah Watkins took him in as he went to school next door to their home. He then moved to Fort Scott, Kansas with a family. There he witnessed a black man being lynched . He moved around from one state to another, one of which was Minneapolis. He applied to Highland College in Highland, Kansas in 1884 and was refused when he showed up because they thought, based on his education that he would be white. He then moved to Iowa and attended the Simpson College in 1890 where Etta Bud, a white woman who taught art classes, supposedly encouraged him to pursue science because she feared he would struggle as a black artist. It was actually Clara Dunkin, a black woman, who initially taught Dr. Carver how to properly paint. Curtis told me that Dr. Carver’s assistant Austin Curtis (?) said that it was Dr. Carver himself who decided not to pursue art on his own.
It seems like history would like us to think that Dr. Carver’s fortune was determined by his proximity to whiteness; Curtis told me that many think that Dr. Carver’s enslavers were kind to him and allowed him to learn and encouraged him to become educated. I don’t believe that and Curtis seems to think that that isn’t entirely true either. Curtis felt it important to let me know that another black woman suggested the same thing and I replied that perhaps there is a feeling about it all not sitting right. Back to Dr. Carver’s timeline: in 1886 Dr. Carver graduated from Simpson College where he was the only white student among a student body of males from the south who made his time there miserable. Despite this he made “friends” in the form of role models like Louis Pammel. After graduating he joined as faculty at the Tuskegee Institute where Booker T. Washington was determined to build a black elite taught by educated black people (controversly Washington took money from white elite to fund the school).
I’m very interested in Dr. Carver’s outlook on land use and conservation. He said that when he saw the land, it looked hungry (due to commercial farming of cotton and other crops that deplete the soil of nutrients) and the people were also hungry. Dr. Carver’s daily routine of waking up early at 4 am (ever since he was a child) and going into the woods or taking walks informed his spiritual connection with the land. He would pick samples, do tests, and nurture wild flowers–seeing weeds and plants as the same. In fact, Curtis says that Dr. Carver would never use the word “weed” because he saw all of natural life growing from the ground as flowers. He would keep a flower in his breast pocket while wearing meager clothing. He wanted to spread simple methods of farming that were within reach of black farmers and would often go to the trash bin and recycle used bottles.
The blue pigment “Egyptian Blue” he created by oxidizing Alabama soil was stored in a Bayers Aspirin bottle. While many think that he invented peanut butter, he actually only used it along with the cow pea and sweet potato to conduct experiments and show examples of how food products can be tested and extended for various uses. He went further in his desire to teach black farmers simple methods after receiving funding from Booker T. Washington to build “The Jesup Agricultural Wagon”. Dr. Carver would travel to rural areas and teach black farmers simple farming methods. The movable school project was appropriated by the USDA.
The reason why many people simply know Dr. Carver as “the peanut man” is because he represented the United Peanut Association to Congress with a plan to develop tariffs to protect the possibilities that the peanut has to offer in terms of product. At first he received racist remarks from Congress which then turned into admiration of Dr. Carver’s ability to 1) turn their racist remarks into positive statements and 2) present complex information in a charismatic and everyday manner. He died in 1943 but before his death he was filmed by a young black filmmaker in his lab and office at the Tuskegee Institute. It’s available in the national archives.