George Washington Carver: Grandfather of Sustainability – Part I

This brilliant mini-biography by Cheri Colburn first appeared in Greenwoman #2.  It’s available in that issue, or in its entirety as an ebook on Amazon.com.

–Sandra Knauf

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For weeks now I’ve been asking my (mostly white, mostly well-educated) friends what they know about George Washington Carver. Nearly every response has focused on the phrase, “The Peanut Guy.” As you probably know, my friends are right. If there is one thing you can say about George Washington Carver, it is that he is “The Peanut Guy.” In fact, in his 45-year tenure at Tuskegee Institute, he single-handedly came up with over 200 uses for the peanut. But George Carver was much more than The Peanut Guy. With a curious mix of nature, nurture, and old-fashioned good luck, he was not only an exceptional scientist and teacher; he was an exceptional human being.

Before I tell you just how exceptional, I feel I must offer a caveat. Throughout this article, it is not my intention to soften the effects of slavery (of course!) or racism. However, I will be offering perspectives based on my readings about George Washington Carver. One of the biographies I read— George Washington Carver: An American Biography by Rackham Holt—was written near the end of Carver’s life and published (1943) shortly after his death. This book is a beautiful, often poetic, account, and I cannot recommend it highly enough (especially for fans of biography/memoir, fans of history, fans of gardening/agriculture, and fans of humanity).

The second book I read—George Washington Carver: The Man Who Overcame by Lawrence Elliot (1966)—was somewhat less compelling. (I went into the book knowing it would not so much offer Carver’s own reflections but rather a more removed, objective perspective.) But by the time I read it, I was a huge Carver fan, and I wanted to know all I could find out.

The contrasts between the authorized version (herein referred to as “Holt”) and this version (“Elliot”), were telling. Just a taste of this contrast is revealed by a comparison of the two subtitles: Holt’s “An American Biography” reflects Carvers humility and down-to-earth perspective on his life and his work. Elliot’s “The Man Who Overcame” reflects a bit more grandiosity—warranted in my opinion, but not something that (I believe) Carver would embrace.

As Luck Would Have It

Carver’s life began with a sizeable portion of bad luck. He was born in 1861 (some more recent accounts say 1864) near Diamond Grove (now Diamond), Missouri in a slave cabin owned by Moses Carver and his wife Sue. From the start, he was a weak and sickly baby, and (insult to injury) when he was still virtually a newborn, he and his mother were stolen by night raiders during the Missouri/Kansas border wars. Moses Carver sent a man to find them, and that man returned with only baby George, near death, wrapped in rawhide. Perhaps his mother, “Carver’s Mary” died from rough treatment so early after giving birth to baby George or perhaps she was simply sold away, but the sad fact is that his mother was gone from him forever. Because his father had died on a neighboring plantation before his birth, Carver was an orphan from the start.

Moses Carver had a fairly small operation—basically a subsistence farm—but he still needed help to run it, and that help came from slaves. Moses owned George’s mother, Mary (and her children), and for a time he had owned George’s father. But Moses was never in full support of slavery, and he was apparently glad when it ended. (Both biographies assert that he sent the scout to find Mary and George not to reclaim his property but out of concern for their well-being.) Sue and Moses were both greatly pleased when sick baby George was returned to them.

According to my sources, two years after Carver’s birth the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, but little changed in young George’s life or in the life of his brother, Jim. Moses and Sue Carver raised both boys as if they were their own children. The Carvers were well-respected people (even though, in a community of Christians, they did not attend church), and they took excellent care of the boys as they grew. George, who never became particularly strong, stayed in the house with “Aunt Sue,” where he learned several homemaking skills—sewing, cooking, and the like—that would serve him throughout his life.

“I Want to Know”

Far from shunning household labor as “women’s work,” young George cherished his growing skills and knowledge. In fact, while still a child, George was heard to say that when he grew up, he would start a school to teach other boys how to do what he could do to make a home. He was also known for asking questions about “why.” Consider this quote from Holt: “A huge insatiable question mark had been in his mind ever since he could think at all: ‘I want to know.’ He fed it fuel constantly, and it was never satisfied. But it did repay him with energy; his ‘I want to know,’ followed by its corollary, ‘I can do that,’ was the dynamo that powered his life.”

Moses and Sue Carver did their best to help George satisfy his appetite for learning. In addition to practical skills, Sue Carver (virtually illiterate herself) taught George every word in her copy of Webster’s “blue-back speller,” and George was allowed to attend Sunday School where he began to learn to read.

Unlike many black children of his era, George Carver had a real childhood. When he was just a little boy, he was allowed to wander through the woods, where he had a little plant hospital; neighbors and friends would give him ailing plants, and he would take them into the woods and nurse them back to health. George never lost a patient and came to be known as “the plant doctor.” Once he was invited to the home of a neighbor to help some failing rose bushes. That day changed the direction of George Carver’s life forever.

After moving the roses from the shade into the sun, George was invited inside. On the walls of that parlor hung several paintings—the first George had ever seen. He was mesmerized. His “I can do that” spirit kicked in, and from that day forward, he made pictures with whatever he could find. He began by scratching images onto wood with coal and nails, and throughout his life, he drew and painted whenever and wherever he could. Indeed, he seemed unable not to paint. Making art became central to who he was as a human being, and his love for making art provided a counterpoint alongside his career as a scientist.

Ten-Years-Old and On His Own: Neosho and “Aunt Mariah”

Carver’s appetite for knowledge drove him (always) toward school. He could not attend school in Diamond Grove because it was only for white children. (Separatism and racism were sad specters in Carver’s life and times, but I believe it is a testament to his character that he would not allow their wounds to deter him from his own sense of right and wrong or from his own drive toward excellence. But I digress.)  Jim and George often ran errands for Uncle Moses in the nearby town of Neosho. On one such trip, George saw a school for black children. When he arrived home, he told Moses and Sue what he had seen and begged to attend the school. But he needn’t have begged at all. Moses told George that he was free and could follow his heart’s desire.

Tears stood in Moses and Sue’s eyes the day they sent 10-year-old George down the road with his little pack of food, his cherished pocket knife, and not much else. George did not even know where he would sleep that night; nobody in Neosho was expecting him. (Can you imagine? He was just a little boy!) But Carver’s had a knack good people. After spending the first night in a hayloft, he awoke, hungry, and headed for the school.

The school had not yet opened when he arrived, and George perched on a woodpile near a neighboring home. That is where Mariah Watkins found him. Mariah and her husband Andy were well-respected members of the local black community, where they attended church and where Mariah worked as a midwife and laundress. (In fact, Mariah delivered both black and white babies and was widely and deeply loved by people of both races.)  Again George was treated as a member of the family, and again he learned many fine skills that would serve him throughout his life.

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Compared with the Carvers, Mariah and Andy had a bit higher standard of living. They did not have a lot of money, but they had a beautiful home that they worked hard to maintain. Here, George learned about the comfort and self-respect that a beautiful home can provide. He learned home maintenance skills, such as how to whitewash walls and sand floors, and he polished what he already knew about the importance of order and discipline. Working alongside Aunt Mariah to clean customer’s clothing, George refined his ironing and laundry skills (often scrubbing clothes with a book propped in front of him).

Aunt Mariah also helped George to improve his sewing skills, including fine stitching and embroidery. He always loved working with his hands, and these finer skills inspired him. During this time, he saw a fancy lace collar on a white woman in town. In stolen, private moments, he copied the fine lacework and presented a copy of the collar as a Christmas gift to an astonished Aunt Mariah. Lace-making became a lifelong hobby of Carver’s, whose hands were rarely idle.

Carver also received a spiritual education while living with Aunt Mariah. The same Christmas he presented her with a lace collar, Aunt Mariah gave George a Bible, which Carver read every day for the rest of his life, marking his place with his first effort at embroidery. George also attended church with Aunt Mariah and Uncle Andy, who were devout Christians.

Of course he attended school as well. The first day that George climbed over the fence that separated the Watkins house from the schoolyard, Aunt Mariah reminded him that he was free. No longer was he “Carver’s George.” In keeping with the custom of the times, he became George Carver.

The schoolhouse was a tiny 11’ x 14’ cabin. Each morning 75 pupils stuffed themselves into the room so tightly that when one person in a row moved, everybody had to make adjustments. The walls were thin, and the children were alternatively freezing or roasting, but few complained. They were there for a higher purpose—to learn.

The man charged with teaching them was Stephen Frost, a rather small-minded (if literate) man who tried to school his pupils in more than just the three “Rs.” Luckily, George Carver had the wherewithal to resist Stephen Frost’s indoctrination; otherwise, a great historical figure might have remained a kitchen hand for life. Elliot’s book describes Stephen Frost and Carver’s contact with him:

“‘Know your place!’ the teacher admonished repeatedly, imbuing the class with his own servility and a sharply limited horizon. And instinctively, silently, George rebelled. He did not delude himself: the color of his skin was a shackle. But he would shake it off or, if he must, drag it behind, for his place was in the sun, and he yearned to climb as near to it as energy and enterprise would take him.”

When Carver reached his teens, he had come as close to that metaphorical sun as Stephen Frost could take him. In addition, he had begun to think that perhaps a different climate might help him to shake his sickly tendencies. So when Aunt Mariah told George that the Smith family was willing to give him a ride the 75 miles to the town of Fort Scott, George left Neosho and his happy home.

Part II–>>

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Cheri Colburn is a writer and editor who brings books into being through her midwifery business, The Finished Book. Her “likes” include hiking, the sound of her children’s voices, and long days digging in the dirt. Her “dislikes” include dieting, deadlines, and quitting bad habits.

Photo By: Library of Congress