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George Washington Carver: A Life

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A Life
by Christina Vella

Louisiana State University Press (2015)

George Washington Carver. . . peanuts, wasn’t it? Somewhere in Alabama. Black man? Didn’t he invent peanut butter?

Most people can remember at least that much of some children’s biography they read in school. There used to be hundreds of noble little volumes on Carver published for young readers, explaining that he developed thousands of products from peanuts (though, alas, not peanut butter) and from such unlikely sources as swamp muck and pine cones. But very few biographies of Carver have ever been written for adults, and those few are old, biased, and superficial. Carver, who died in 1943, nevertheless remained a household hero until the 1960s, when the public focus shifted from saintly black geniuses to activists of an angrier genre. Because of those children’s books which were all that most people knew, Carver seemed too nice to be interesting.

Actually, his life was cursed with drama. The most shattering event of his childhood was his kidnapping. It happened when he was only a few weeks old, during the Civil War, probably in 1862. He and his mother were seized from their slave cabin in Missouri and taken to Arkansas. George was somehow separated from his mother, who was never found. Their owner, Moses Carver, sent after them and managed to get the baby back by ransoming him for a race horse. The whooping cough George contracted during that ordeal damaged his vocal cords, so that all his life he had the voice of a woman—an aging soprano. George Washington Carver: A Life goes into some detail regarding the tenuousness of Missouri farming during the War, when violent raiders from both sides marauded through the countryside.

The second worst event, which is largely unknown, occurred in Kansas, when Carver was a 17-year old drifter. A lynch mob dragged a black man down a street where George was standing, bashed the man’s brains out on the sidewalk, hanged what was left of him, and then set fire to the bloody remains. The memory haunted Carver for the rest of his days.

What has never, ever, been revealed is a ten-year episode in Carver’s private life. When he was 60, long established in Alabama and nationally renowned, he fell passionately in love with a 23-year old white man. The uneven relationship obsessed him for a decade, but ended when the younger man abruptly married—and broke Carver’s heart.

Not even the hundreds of articles about Carver published in popular magazines during his lifetime could do justice to his scientific accomplishments. Working at Tuskegee Institute, with no laboratory and only home-made equipment, Carver created over 1,000 products from sweet potatoes, and hundreds of items from common clay, corn shucks, kudzu, and the like—everything from house paint and axle grease to soy milk and a treatment for goiter. All this along with a heavy teaching load. In searching for a substitute for cotton farming, which had depleted southern soil, he developed more than 2,000 commercial products from peanuts. Little wonder that he became known as “The Peanut Wizard.”

But Carver’s private life was largely ignored by the press, especially his fraught relationship with his boss, Booker T. Washington. Not until now has anyone explored his three love affairs, his religious radicalism, or his notable oddness (one of his quirks was to dress like a well-scrubbed bum, even when meeting the President of the United States; he liked to watch the reaction to his patches.)

George Carver and his brother were raised by a kindly, eccentric white couple in a one-room, 8x10-foot cabin. His neighbors realized that “Carver’s George” had a magic touch with plants; but he had such a bad stammer as a child that people could hardly understand him. “Uncle Mose” taught George to play the violin, but being illiterate himself, he could not teach the bright little boy to read. Thus, at the age of ten, George gathered his little store of belongings—mostly pet rocks and larvae—walked off the Carver farm, and struck out on his own to seek an education.

He worked at odd jobs, saving enough to support himself for a couple of months so that he could attend school, and returning to work when his money was gone. He wandered through the upstart towns of the Kansas frontier, cleaning stables, harvesting wheat on the prairie, washing clothes for a dollar here and there and tending greenhouses for free, for the joy of nurturing plants. He managed to graduate from high school in his mid-twenties and was accepted at a Presbyterian college. He arrived after a walk of several days. But when he presented himself at the registrar’s office, smiling and unexpectedly black, he was turned away. The whole encounter took five minutes.

Carver gave up his dream of university and threw himself into homesteading. In that robust period of American history, migrants were spilling out from the East onto the plains to claim free western lands. The book goes into some detail to describe life in sod houses heated by buffalo dung. Carver built a “soddie” on the prairie, planted orchards and crops on his claim, and might have disappeared from history then and there; but his longing for knowledge, his hunger for such things as classical music and poetry, was too strong. He sold his claim, again scraped together his money and courage, and walked 25 miles to an art college in Kansas—where he was not rejected. However, his teachers, realizing that a Negro artist had little chance of financial success, persuaded him to switch to botany a few months before he was set to graduate. Caver slowly worked his way through Iowa State College in Ames, earned a master’s degree in agriculture, and was appointed a full-fledged faculty member. His future in Iowa seemed set.

But in 1896, Carver met Booker T. Washington and fell under the hypnotic spell of the man he would come to idolize. He gave up his post in Iowa to go “to his people,” to the Negro college Washington had founded in Alabama, where Carver remained for the rest of his life. His Iowa students gave him parting gifts—the only microscope he would ever own, and a suit of clothes that he wore and wore exclusively for the next 47 years, even as it changed color with each decade.

The sharecroppers of Alabama were 85% black. In their cabins, Carver saw disease and desperation such as he had never before witnessed.

“He stared at the stark details of privation: a loft where the older boys slept with the rats; a pigpen reeking near the door; an open well too close to the pigs and to the place in the bushes that served as an outhouse; flies everywhere. The privies and yards were alive with hookworm, ‘ground itch,’ that burrowed between the toes of barefoot children and adults and traveled through the body even to the brain. The overwhelming majority of farm people were infected with it” (Chapter 5).

Generations of cotton farming had depleted the soil and, as cotton prices fell, sharecroppers starved. Carver, working alone and with makeshift utensils, set out to find crops besides cotton that a one-mule farmer could raise. Those alternative crops were peanuts, which replenished the soil, and sweet potatoes, which yielded more food per acre than any other plant. But there was no large market for these foods, so Carver began developing his amazing range of by-products to create a commercial demand. By the time of his death, peanuts had become the third most important cash crop of Alabama and Georgia.

No previous book has delved into Carver’s anguished dealings with the neurotic Booker T. Washington. Carver won for Tuskegee one of the prestigious agricultural experiment stations that the government was setting up, and brought high officials to visit Tuskegee. “Booker” was always avid for attention to his school; but he was also deeply jealous of the erudite professor he had hired. He thwarted Carver’s research, delayed printing his bulletins and scientific articles for years, fostered cabals against him, badgered him cruelly, and made him generally wretched for the nineteen years the two were together. Booker was largely responsible for the suicide of Carver’s dearest friend—a married woman Carver loved—who threw herself off Tuskegee’s highest building. For his part, Carver remained in Booker’s thrall, like a bewildered son never able to satisfy an adored but distant father.

Only after Booker’s death in 1915 could Carver begin garnering a reputation for his scientific work. In his research station he created useful items from materials normally thrown away: barnyard feathers (500 products); weeds that yielded dyes (over 500); acorns, oil refining sludge, animal bones, pine straw, and many, many others. He made whitewash from Alabama clay, along with laundry powder, shoe polish, and dozens of paints and stains from the same clay. His discoveries in botany and mycology, the medicines he concocted from plants, his substitutes for milk—these could fill a book. Albert Einstein considered Carver one of the ten greatest scientists of his time. Carver refused to accept lecture fees or take out patents; he freely gave away all the formulas for his products. He served as chief consultant for dozens of companies and declined any compensation. He turned down a job offer from Thomas Edison with a salary of over $100,000 and instead remained in Alabama, earning $1,000 annually. Only by staying at Tuskegee, he said, would his work reflect on his race.

There were love affairs, aside from his devotion to his married friend. One lasted six years. Sarah was a beautiful, educated woman who chose to be black—that is, to all appearances, she was Caucasian, a pairing that put her and Carver in mortal peril anywhere in the country. Then, as a much older man, Carver, who was a religious fanatic, became helplessly attached to a young white evangelizer, Jim Hardwick. Their affair was kept going through intense visits and Carver’s fevered love letters. During the same period, one of Carver’s close women friends was also in love with Jim. The relationship between the elderly celebrity and the ambivalent youth lasted for some ten years.

In 1933, Carver developed what newspapers wrongly announced was a cure for polio. Massages with Carver’s oil compound were in fact miraculously effective in restoring withered limbs. Individuals who were brought to him on stretchers walked away after a few months of treatment—but only in random cases. The day after world-wide headlines proclaimed the “cure,” cars and wagons carrying stricken people stretched for miles on the road to Tuskegee. His work attracted enormous publicity, but he had no opportunity to test his treatment in scientific trials. In the end, he and the doctors supporting him were bitterly disappointed at not winning approval from the AMA.

Though he seemed isolated in the hills, Carver lived in the traffic of passing history. Reconstruction, western migration, the First World War, evangelical movements, the Scopes trial, the automobile revolution, the Great Depression, and the rise of Hitler were all part of his experience. The book tries to describe Carver’s times. Where his life intersected the lives of interesting people who were his friends, the narrative wanders into their personalities: Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt, Mohandas Gandhi, Henry A. Wallace and, especially, the constant friend and sometime crackpot, Henry Ford.

By the time of Carver’s death in 1943, there was hardly a person in America who had not heard of him. He loved all humanity, without regard to color; and all humanity loved him back, again without regard to color. He alone seemed exempt from the virulent racism of those years.

Having given away his savings, Carver died poor and famous, with no luxuries on his soul except a wealth of unspent ideas.

Dr. Vella's works are distributed locally by Octavia Books

513 Octavia Street
New Orleans, LA 70115

Autographs and personal dedications are available on request.

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