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George Washington Carver
In His Own Words
By Gary R. Kremer
University of Missouri Press Copyright © 1987 The Curators of the University of Missouri
All rights reserved.
CARVER—THE MAN AND THE MYTH
No individual has any right to come into the world and go out of it without leaving behind him distinct and legitimate reasons for having passed through it.
G. W. Carver 25 May 1915
George Washington Carver is a twentieth-century American paradox. He undoubtedly achieved one of his most sought-after goals: he made an indelible mark on the world he left behind. His name is more widely recognized than that of any other black American, past or present, with the possible exception of Martin Luther King, Jr. He is a folk hero, our country's most well-known black success story—proof positive, we have all been told, that Horatio Alger is alive and well, even in twentieth-century black America. And yet, George Washington Carver is also one of the least understood of all our heroes. What manner of man was this person who operated out of a remote Southern black school, took white America as if by storm, and rose to national and even international fame? How was he able to accomplish such a feat? The letters in this collection are presented in an attempt to answer those questions.
I knew little about George Washington Carver when I began a project of cataloging his correspondence for the National Park Service in 1982. I am of a generation that grew up after his death. As a child, I learned what most American schoolchildren were taught about him: he was born a slave, became a scientist, worked at Tuskegee Institute, and discovered countless ways to use peanuts. Carver was offered to me and to my fellow students in the 1950s as an example of possibility and promise among the black race, a model for other blacks to emulate and an example that whites could point to whenever they wanted to prove that America was, indeed, the land of opportunity for all.
"In-depth" inquiries into the life of Carver during the 1940s and 1950s began and ended with a single book: Rackham Holt's George Washington Carver: An American Biography. Holt's book reflected the view of Carver held by most Americans during the two decades after his death: it pictured him as a flawless, superhuman hero. Holt romanticized and mythologized her subject in an uncritical account of his rise from slavery to fame. The most important source she used in composing her chronicle of Carver's life was his own testimony of what he had accomplished. She visited him often in his Tuskegee office, interviewed him endlessly, and accepted as accurate the image of himself that he wished her to portray to the reading public. Carver read the several drafts of Holt's manuscript before it went to press and told her that it was "the most fascinating piece of writing that I have read. I started in and I confess I could not lay it down until I had finished it."
As a college student in the 1960s, I learned a little more about Carver, but, frankly, his was not a life that many of my colleagues in black studies sought to understand. The very qualities that made him a hero to Americans of the 1940s and 1950s made him suspect among blacks and liberal whites in the 1960s and early 1970s. He was an "Uncle Tom," we said, easily dismissing him as a Booker T. bedfellow, and pronouncing him to be a subject unworthy of serious scholarly study, unless, of course, that scholarship was an instrument for ridicule. This view of Carver was best articulated by a young historian named Barry MacKintosh in his essay "George Washington Carver: The Making of a Myth." Unlike Holt, MacKintosh found few redeeming qualities in Carver. Drawing upon such sources as a long-suppressed 1962 National Park Service report, which concluded that Carver's "discoveries" were greatly overrated, MacKintosh proceeded to flail away at the Carver image.
Unfortunately for the readers of their works, neither Holt nor MacKintosh understood that Carver was not completely hero or myth. Instead, he was an extraordinarily complex man living in an extremely complicated society. The understanding of that reality was left to a historian of the 1980s, Linda O. McMurry, whose volume George Washington Carver: Scientist and Symbol cleared up much of the confusion created by Holt and MacKintosh. McMurry avoids an unquestioning admiration of her subject on the one hand, while documenting and explaining, without condemnation, his shortcomings on the other. The conceptual framework provided by McMurry is the starting point for a more complete understanding of the man whom many dubbed "the Wizard of Tuskegee."
My own reading of McMurry's book, coupled with my exposure to the hundreds of letters written by Carver that are housed at the George Washington Carver National Monument and Tuskegee Institute, convinced me that a collection of Carver letters could add detail to the portrait begun by his most recent biographer. Nowhere are the brilliance, the self-doubt, the religious fervor, the successes, and the failures of Carver more evident than in his own correspondence.
Although he never wrote in detail about it, Carver often referred to his origin as a slave. The paradoxes and ironies surrounding his birth and early years seem appropriate for one whose life was enshrouded in such mystery. Carver was born a slave on a two-hundred-acre farm just outside the small town of Diamond, in Newton County, Missouri. His master, Moses Carver, was a kindly German immigrant whose need for help around the farm overrode his opposition to the institution of slavery. George's mother, of course, lived on the Moses Carver property. His father belonged to a man who owned an adjoining farm.
George's father was killed in an accident before the future scientist was even born. Subsequently, he and his mother were kidnapped by one of the many bands of bushwhackers who roamed western Missouri during the Civil War era. Moses Carver hired a neighbor to track down and rescue young George and his mother. The neighbor was partially successful: he recovered the infant slave. The return of George Carver to his master's farm cost Moses Carver one of his finest horses. The mother disappeared, or at least seemed to disappear, from the pages of history, although there is inconclusive evidence that she may have reemerged after the war in a small northern Missouri town where she spent the remainder of her life wondering about and looking for her son. If that Mary Carver was, in fact, George's mother, she died about the time her son went to Tuskegee. Carver often referred in his letters to the trauma that resulted from having been raised an orphan.
The death of his father and the disappearance of his mother meant that George and his older brother Jim would be raised by a slaveowner who had abolitionist sentiments. The first ten years of Carver's life are the sketchiest. He recalled very little of his childhood experiences. Late in his life, he offered this simple explanation for his faulty memory to Rackham Holt: "There are some things that an orphan child does not want to remember...."
The few recollections that Carver did have, combined with the remembrances of elderly Newton County residents, portray Carver's early years as a time when he was a frail, sickly child who, because of his poor health, spent much of his time assisting Susan Carver with domestic chores. While his brother Jim was out helping Moses Carver take care of the farm, George learned how to cook, mend, do laundry, embroider, and perform numerous similar tasks. Apparently George was still very young when he developed a fascination for plants, perhaps as a result of helping Susan Carver take care of the garden—another of the traditionally feminine tasks that his poor health dictated he do. For the remainder of his life, George always found it easier to meet and talk with women than with men.
One unfortunate by-product of Carver's early, continued, and extensive association with women was that it nurtured rumors that he was homosexual. The fact that he never married and that he had a decidedly feminine voice no doubt also provided fodder for the rumormongers. Despite Carver's close relationships with many young boys, there is no evidence that those relationships were anything other than platonic.
On a more speculative note, Carver's fondness for things feminine may have influenced the way he practiced science. Students of the history of science agree that there are "feminine" and "masculine" approaches to scientific experimentation. The feminine approach is more intuitive and involves engaging in a dialogue with the subject being studied. Whether or not Carver's methods were affected by his stronger-than-usual ties to women, his statements about how the peanut told him of its potential uses, for example, fit the feminine model of the scientist fusing with the object of study and allowing that object to speak to the person who is studying it.
Susan Carver was not able to quench young George's thirst for knowledge. The same curiosity that prodded him to wander over Moses Carver's Diamond Grove farm in search of new flora and fauna led him also to leave the farm at about the age of eleven and travel eight miles to Neosho, where a school for blacks was conducted by a teacher named Stephen Frost.
Carver arrived in Neosho too late at night to seek lodging with a friendly family, so he found a comfortable spot in a barn and settled in for the night. His choice of a sleeping spot was fortuitous: first, the barn was practically next door to the school; second, it belonged to Andrew and Mariah Watkins, a childless black couple who took in the young waif and treated him as their own. George earned his keep by doing such chores as chopping wood, tending the garden, and helping the ever-busy "Aunt Mariah" with the weekly loads of laundry that she took in to help with the family's finances.
George's initial response to the opportunity for formal education was excited optimism, but his hope dimmed as he learned that Schoolmaster Foster knew little more than he did. He was happy enough with the Watkinses, but something was missing. So, like many a young person, before and since, he set out to find himself.
He hitched a ride with a family going west in the late 1870s and ended up in Olathe, Kansas. For the next decade he traveled from one midwestern community to another, often using the domestic skills he had learned from Susan Carver and Mariah Watkins to survive. Doing laundry, for example, became his specialty. He even tried his hand at homesteading in Ness County, Kansas, in the mid-1880s. Like the other settlers in the area, all of whom were white, Carver built himself a sod hut and tried to eke out an existence on the recalcitrant Kansas prairie. Other Ness County folks quickly appreciated the fact that there was something special about this gentle black man who played an accordian for them at their dances, joined their local literary society, and showed a remarkable interest in and facility for painting. The correspondence contained in this collection reveals that Carver's Ness County memories remained precious to him throughout his life.
But there was something missing in Ness County as well. In the late 1880s wanderlust hit Carver again. This time his travels took him to Winterset, Iowa, where he encountered a white couple who profoundly influenced his life: Dr. and Mrs. John Milholland. Mrs. Milholland first noticed Carver singing at a church service one Sunday morning and, touched by his intensity and sincerity, sent her husband to fetch him home for Sunday dinner.
Conversations left the Milhollands deeply impressed: here, they knew, was a rare individual indeed. They quickly became convinced that the searching, sensitive mind of the future scientist needed to be nurtured and disciplined through formal education. They urged Carver to enroll as a student at nearby Simpson College, but Carver was reluctant. His only previous experience at entering college had ended disastrously. He had applied at Highland College in Kansas and been accepted, sight unseen. When he had tried to register at the all-white school, his obvious blackness had caused the first official he encountered to announce that there had been a mistake: Highland College had never admitted a Negro and had no intention of ever doing so. For a young man who had always considered whites to be his friends, that had been a bitter pill to swallow. He could not stand the thought of being rejected once more.
But the Milhollands persisted, prodding him to try again. They argued that his potential was so great that he owed it to himself. Finally, he gave in, moving to Indianola and enrolling in Simpson College in late 1889 or early 1890. He planned to study art, his first love. For the remainder of his life he was grateful to the Milhollands, often telling them he would never have enjoyed the benefits of higher education had it not been for them.
The correspondence between Carver and the Milhollands reveals the source of the "specialness" they and others saw in him. Carver's letters from his student days in the early 1890s are filled with references to an intimate relationship with God. He often wrote of spiritual obligations that needed to be carried out. God, he was convinced, had chosen him to perform wondrous tasks. Where Carver came by this deep sense of religion remains unclear. Back in Diamond, Missouri, he had had little formal religious training; Moses Carver had been a free thinker who distrusted organized religion and Bible-thumping preachers. Young George had gotten a good dose of regular Bible reading during his stay with Mariah Watkins, but his religious fervor seemed to stem more from a deep, personal mysticism—an almost pantheistic sense of identifying God with nature and communicating with Him through the forces of His creation.
This mysticism is one of Carver's most important traits and must be understood by anyone who would try to explain how and why he did what he did. He never separated the worlds of science and religion; he saw them as mutually acceptable and compatible tools for arriving at truth.
Throughout his life Carver had visions, which he took to be solemn directives for future action sent to him by God. His earliest recollection of a vision was as a child. He longed to have a pocketknife, but could not afford one. Then one night he had a dream that included a view of a knife lying in one of Moses Carver's fields. Upon awaking the next morning, he proceeded directly to the spot in the field that he had seen in his dream. There, sticking in a partially eaten watermelon, was a shiny pocketknife, the object of his greatest longing. Dreams, he quickly realized, were to be believed.
Visions returned to him at Simpson College. He became convinced that God intended that he be a teacher of blacks. He abandoned his desire to paint and changed his major to the more pragmatic field of agriculture, although he never lost his love for art. It was a practical decision: Southern blacks could not paint their way out of poverty.
He decided to pursue an education at Iowa State College, where he made quite an impression on the faculty. His long-nurtured interest in plants had helped him to develop an ability to raise, cross-fertilize, and graft them with uncanny success. His professors were convinced that he had a promising future as a botanist and persuaded him to stay on as a graduate student after he finished his senior year. He was assigned to work as an assistant to Prof. L. H. Pammel, a noted mycologist, later described by Carver as "the one who helped and inspired me to do original work more than any one else." Under Pammel's tutelage, Carver refined his skills of identifying and treating plant diseases. As was the case with virtually all those who showed kindness toward him, Carver remained forever grateful for Pammel's help and encouragement, corresponding with him until Pammel's death and also maintaining a close friendship with the professor's wife and two daughters.
Carver was in the last year of his stay at Iowa State when Booker T. Washington gave his famous Atlanta Exposition speech (1895). That speech was Washington's clearest expression of a long-held philosophy: that Southern blacks needed to accommodate themselves to the reality of white control and win first their economic independence through vocational training and the ancient virtues of hard work and thrift. As a means to that end, Washington had established Tuskegee Institute in Alabama in 1881. By 1896 he had persuaded the board of trustees to establish an agricultural school. Carver, the only black man in the country who had graduate training in "scientific agriculture," was the logical choice for the Tuskegee leader, who wanted to keep his faculty all black.
So it was that late in 1896, George Washington Carver traveled to the struggling Tuskegee Institute, where, he promised Booker T. Washington, he would make grass grown green in the acidic Alabama clay. In fact, while sitting in Washington's office he had another of his visions. As the Tuskegee principal droned on about his aspirations for the school, and Carver's role in it, the young botanist gazed out an open window and looked into the future—both his own, and that of the institution he had been called to serve. He saw a Tuskegee that was lush with green grass, a literal and figurative oasis in a barren desert—a place where burned-out Southern blacks could come to be rejuvenated, a place of hope and promise. And always he would be there to show them the way—he would be their teacher. If they could not come to him, he would go to them; he would visit the poor and downtrodden in what he called "the lowlands of sorrow" and would help them learn to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. He would combine the creativity of the artist with the rationality of the scientist to do what had never been done. Yes, Mr. Washington, he said, he was ready to begin.
Excerpted from George Washington Carver by Gary R. Kremer. Copyright © 1987 The Curators of the University of Missouri. Excerpted by permission of University of Missouri Press.
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