George Washington Carver: In His Own Words, Second Edition

George Washington Carver: In His Own Words, Second Edition

by Gary R. Kremer (Editor)

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780826221391
Publisher: University of Missouri Press
Publication date: 11/21/2017
Edition description: Second Edition
Pages: 268
Sales rank: 394,961
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)
Age Range: 3 Months to 18 Years

About the Author

Gary R. Kremer is the Executive Director of The State Historical Society of Missouri and a scholar of African American history. He is the author of several books on the topic, including Race and Meaning: The African American Experience in Missouri. He lives in Jefferson City, Missouri.

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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.

Geo. W. Carver 25 May 1915

INTO THE TWENTY-FIRST century George Washington Carver remains a paradox of American history. He undoubtedly achieved one of his most sought-after goals: he made an indelible mark on the world he left behind. His name is as widely recognized as that of any other black American, past or present, with the possible exception of President Barack Obama, Martin Luther King, Jr., or sports figures such as LeBron James. 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 twenty-first-century 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, operating 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 held out to me and 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. Holt 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. In 1972, Louis T. Harlan, the author of a two-volume biography of Booker T. Washington, barely took notice of Carver, referring to him as "an eccentric genius ... noted for his quarrelsome nature, his loyalty to the school, and his deferential behavior to whites." Carver, according to Harlan, was undeniably useful to Washington, while "out-Bookering" the Tuskegee principal. Criticism of Carver reached a crescendo with the work of a young historian named Barry MacKintosh with 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 respective 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 avoided 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, undoubtedly influenced by the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, is the starting point for a more complete understanding of the man whom many dubbed "the Wizard of Tuskegee."

Since George Washington Carver: In His Own Words appeared in 1987, other scholars have taken up the challenge of describing and explaining Carver's place in twentieth-century American history. In 1998, Peter D. Burchard published a small book, Carver: A Great Soul, which emphasized Carver's spirituality and connection to nature. Burchard followed that up with A National Park Service-sponsored study titled George Washington Carver: For His Time and Ours, published in 2005.

Two new books about Carver appeared in 2011. One was a book by this author, George Washington Carver: A Biography, published as a volume in the Greenwood Biographies Series by Greenwood/ABC-CLIO. The other was a creative monograph by a young environmental historian named Mark Hersey, who teaches at Mississippi State University. Hersey's book, My Work Is That of Conservation: An Environmental Biography of George Washington Carver, was published by the University of Georgia Press. Hersey's book, influenced by the writings of Michael Pollan, among others, reflects the emergence and acceptance of environmental history as an important field of study. The great contribution of Hersey's work is that it transcends the old model of viewing Carver as an inventor and replaces it with a view of him as a conservationist. Indeed, Hersey argues, and correctly I think, that Carver's true genius and greatest contribution to history was as a pioneer conservationist.

More recently, biographer Christina Vella published a Carver biography in LSU Press's prestigious Southern Biography Series. Her George Washington Carver: A Life has been advertised as "the most thorough biography of George Washington Carver." Notwithstanding this claim, at least one reviewer of the biography concluded that despite Vella's "colorful and well-written biography," "George Washington Carver remains an enigma."

My own reading of books about Carver, coupled with my exposure to the thousands of letters written by Carver housed at the George Washington Carver National Monument and Tuskegee Institute, continue to convince me that a collection of Carver letters can add detail to the portraits sketched by his biographers. Nowhere are the brilliance, self-doubt, religious fervor, and successes and 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 Ohio-born transplant 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 birth of the future scientist. 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 only 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 in which 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.

In a 1989 interview, Dana Johnson, who as a young man had been a friend of Carver's, recalled visiting the latter in his room at Tuskegee. He was struck by the presence of a small spinning wheel in the room, and Carver's high regard for it. "He told us that it had been his mother's and was one of the only things that he had of his mother's. If he touched it at all with his hand, it was with the greatest love and affection." Obviously, Carver felt the absence of his mother even in late life.

The death of his father and the disappearance of his mother meant that George and his older brother Jim would be raised by a former slave owner 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 and youth dictated he do. For the remainder of his life, George always found it easier to meet and talk with women than with men. In a late-life interview, Jessie Guzman, who worked with Carver at Tuskegee for more than two decades, recalled that he "had many women friends, mainly."

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.

Similarly, Elva Jackson Howell remembered a presentation that Carver made before a group of students at Virginia State College in 1928. She recalled how Carver placed a sweet potato on the lectern and began his talk by addressing the plant: "Sweet potato, sweet potato, what are you?"

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 fortunate: 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 accordion 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 he 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.

But when he had tried to register at the all-white school, the first official he encountered announced 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 to have 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.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments, First Edition ix

Acknowledgments, Second Edition xi

Editorial Policy xv

Chronology xvii

1 Introduction: Carver-the Man and the Myth 3

2 Self-Portraits: Carver's Self-image over Time 23

3 The Pre-Tuskegee Years: Old Friends Remembered 45

4 Tuskegee Institute: Carver and His Coworkers 69

5 The Teacher as Motivator: Carver and His Students 95

6 The Scientist as Servant: "Helping the Man Farthest Down" 115

7 The Scientist as Mystic: "Reading God out of Nature's Great Book" 145

8 Carver: Black Man in White America 169

9 Carver and His Boys 193

10 Remembering George Washington Carver: An Intimate Portrait 221

Notes 235

Index 245

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