A bit off the beaten path in southwestern Missouri, we discovered the George Washington Carver National Monument and learned a great deal. From our American history classes, we knew that George Washington Carver discovered many uses for peanuts and that he did much of his work at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. But there is so much more to this story!
George Washington Carver National Monument, established in 1943, was the first unit of the National Park Service to honor an African American scientist, educator, and humanitarian, and the first honoring an individual other than a U.S. president.
The Monument encompasses the original Moses and Susan Carver farm near Diamond, Missouri, on which G. W. Carver was born a slave in about 1864. There is a one-mile loop trail past the Carver family cemetery, through woodlands, across streams, to the restored 1881 Carver House and past the birthplace site. The museum in the Visitor Center is extensive and very interesting.
During the Civil War, guerrilla warfare was a constant along the Missouri-Kansas border. At one point, outlaws kidnapped young George and his mother Mary. George was found in Arkansas near death with whooping cough and returned to the Carvers but his mother was never found. During the post-Civil War racial violence, George and his brother Jim remained on the farm, sheltered and raised by the Carvers. George left the farm about 1875 but visited occasionally.
George developed his interest in and love of plants early, as well as a talent in art. Prior to 1865 it was illegal in Missouri to teach African Americans (enslaved or free) to read and write. Even with legal public access to education, the young black man found it difficult as many communities did not allow black students. With the Carvers’ encouragement to gain an education, George left to go to Neosho, Missouri, to attend a black school. Throughout his quest to obtain an education, George had to work to support himself which was often very difficult. In the late 1870’s George migrated to Kansas, first to Fort Scott, then to Olathe and to Minneapolis, Kansas, where he attended high school. He applied to Highland College by mail and was accepted but arrived to be denied admission because of his race.
He enrolled in Simpson College in Winterset, Iowa, to pursue studies in art. He transferred to Iowa Agricultural College (which later became Iowa State University) in Ames, Iowa, in 1891. Carver became the first African American to graduate with a bachelor’s degree, the first African American member of the faculty, and the first African American to receive a master’s degree at Iowa Agricultural College.
In 1896, Carver accepted Booker T. Washington’s offer to join the faculty of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Expecting to stay a few short years, Carver’s career at Tuskegee spanned the next forty-seven years. Feeling very strongly about service to mankind, Carver said, “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.”
Carver taught self-sufficiency and sound conservation practices. When poor farmers were unable to come to Tuskegee for instruction, he proposed a traveling agricultural school and the Jesup Agricultural Wagon was initiated in 1906. It delivered instruction in farm life to thousands and was adopted by the USDA and expanded.
Carver developed over one hundred uses for sweet potatoes and three hundred for peanuts but did not patent any of his inventions as he felt that they should all be free and accessible to everyone. Carver was part of a movement called Chemurgy in the 1930’s. Chemurgy is the use of organic materials – especially farm products – to make industrial products. Henry Ford supported chemurgy and his plants produced hundreds of tons of soybean plastic car parts while other moguls began producing corn-based gasohol. Then something put the movement to a stop. Some implicate oil industry sabotage while others point to mass production complications and World War II. I couldn’t help but wonder where we would be today if chemurgy had continued.
George Washington Carver was a symbol of interracial cooperation in a time when that was rare. He received numerous awards and honors throughout his lifetime. A modest man who credited God as the source of his scientific revelations, Carver felt strongly about being of the greatest good to the greatest number. Carver died January 5, 1943 at Tuskegee and is buried on the campus of Tuskegee University.