The scientist who we mostly think of as “that guy who studied peanuts at Tuskegee” was born a slave in southwest Missouri near Joplin, and had an extraordinary life before he ever set foot in Alabama.
The National Monument at George Washington Carver’s birthplace and childhood home – the first birthplace National Monument dedicated to someone other than a President and the first dedicated to an African-American – is full of stories and insights into his early life.
George Washington Carver, his mother Mary, and his sister were stolen from their owners, Moses and Susan Carver, toward the end of the Civil War, when George was just a baby. This part of Missouri is close to the Kansas border, with a long and painful history of cross-border violence including the “Border Wars” that led up to the Civil War.
Although Moses Carver sent someone to try to bring his slaves back from Kansas, only George was recovered, and he was terribly ill with whooping cough.
So there he was, a baby who was sick and orphaned at the very beginning of his life.
Moses and Susan raised George (and a brother who, sadly, would die years later of smallpox) and because of his weakened state from the whooping cough, he couldn’t do much heavy labor.
He spent a lot of time out in the woods and fields near the Carver homestead….thinking, learning, and exploring.
“From a child I had an inordinate desire for knowledge, and especially music, painting, flowers, and the sciences….day after day I spent in the woods alone in order to collect my floral beauties, and put them in my little garden I had hidden in the brush not far from the house, as it was considered foolishness in the neighborhood to waste time on flowers.”
He couldn’t attend the school near his home because he was black and it was whites-only, but he persevered and went to the “Negro school” eight miles away, then walked (walked!) far into Kansas to find other schools, work odd jobs, and continue to learn.
At one point he was admitted to a college in Kansas, until he actually walked in the door and they saw that he was black. Admission rescinded.
Can you imagine?
This was one persistent, determined, brave individual.
Carver continued to enjoy the arts and painting, and this finally led to his admission to Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa.
His art teacher at Simpson recognized and encouraged his love of plants, and encouraged him to transfer to what is now Iowa State University in Ames, where he earned bachelor’s (1894) and master’s (1896) degrees in agricultural science while also writing poetry, participating in the debate club, and having two of his paintings exhibited at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.
Only after all of that was he invited by Booker T. Washington to teach at Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute, where he lived the rest of his life and is buried.
Carver did so much to improve the lives of “the man farthest down;” poor farmers trying to scratch out a living in tired soil that was depleted by cotton crops, and no prospects for much of anything better.
Yes, he’s famous for his work to find multiple uses for the peanut and then teach others what he learned, starting with publications like a 1916 research bulletin, “How to Grow the Peanut and 105 Ways of Preparing it For Human Consumption.”
What I didn’t realize was the impact of his agricultural research on farmers around the whole world.
Today, visitors to the George Washington Carver National Monument can walk on wooded trails around the property, children can enjoy interactive exhibits related to Carver’s work, and there are special events and programs like “Coffee With Carver” – one of them demonstrates wild vegetables available in the area and participants get a free tomato plant.
You don’t have to hide your plant in a secret garden, either.
“It is not the style of clothes one wears, neither the kind of automobiles one drives, nor the amount of money one has in the bank, that counts. These mean nothing. It is simply service that measures success.”
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