Few American icons have been so poorly understood and widely appropriated as George Washington Carver. He has been held up as a hero by both the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the NAACP; by Christian fundamentalists and gay rights activists. Living on Earth and Planet Harmony’s Ike Sriskandarajah travels to Macon County, Alabama and discovers that Carver’s real legacy may be his vision for sustainable agriculture.
GELLERMAN: Juneteenth commemorates the abolition of slavery in the United States – first announced in June of 1865. But life for former slaves didn't improve immediately. Many of those newly freed men and women, forced to work as sharecroppers, found a champion in George Washington Carver. Carver was an educator, inventor and botanist – perhaps most famous for his work with the peanut. But he also worked tirelessly to pull black farmers out of poverty through sustainable farming practices, and the work he started at Tuskegee Institute continues today. Ike Sriskandarajah reports for Living on Earth and our sister program, Planet Harmony.
SRISKANDARAJAH: Tuskegee Institute was famously founded by Booker T. Washington, it’s famous for its Tuskegee Airmen and infamous for its syphilis experiments. Before that, this area in Macon County, Alabama was the center of American cotton production. Nearly a half million slaves lived in this “black belt” region – named not for the people but the dark, rich soil they worked. When George Washington Carver stepped off the train from the Midwest in 1896, pests and cotton monoculture had severely depleted the fertile earth – and the people along with it. Carver had grown up a frail, sick child with a voice damaged by illness. But he felt he had been chosen by God to serve. Here he reads from a favorite poem, called “Equipment.”
CARVER: And a man who has risen, great deeds must do/Began his life with no more than you/You’re the handicap you must face/You’re the one who must choose your place.
SRISKANDARAJAH: Carver chose Tuskegee – committing his life to helping the exploited people and exploited land. To him, these were the same target. Sustainable agriculture was his silver bullet. And peanuts were a part of his plan. Legumes were grown as a cover crop to feed the depleted soil with nitrogen. Carver took this bioremediation crop into the lab and came up with countless ways to take the lowly goober to market. His hundreds of innovations brought him fame – but didn’t bring prosperity to the impoverished farmers. Dr. Walter Hill is dean of the Agriculture school at Tuskegee.
HILL: We are going try to complete the job that he didn’t quite finish. Getting back to our people; those poor farmers and families get a better quality of life and at the same time, improve the environment.
SRISKANDARAJAH: Dean Hill took me to the fields to show me what they’re doing. But before that, I went in search of Carver with Dana Chandler, Tuskegee Institute’s archivist.
CHANDLER:Archivist – yeah – whatever that means (Laughs) I want to take you in here, we’ll start in here, actually, show you some things about Carver.
SRISKANDARAJAH: In a basement room, cardboard boxes full of Carver’s belongings are piled up to the ceiling. Chandler squeezes between overstuffed shelves, stopping to point out a microscope from Carver’s lab, a well-worn Bible, and picks up one of Carver’s field notebooks.
CHANDLER: Ike, you want to hold it? I mean, it’s a piece of history, buddy, that nobody has seen in many years.
SRISKANDARAJAH: The notebook smells of smoke – it was rescued from a fire- it’s crinkly and flakes to the touch, but the pages are alive with Carver’s observations about the natural world; notes on crop rotation, tables with soil measurements, crawling with drawings of vines and flowering plants, sketched in pain-staking detail. But there’s little here about peanuts, even though most school children learn about Carver’s 300 uses for the peanut.And it’s inspired countless jokes. Here’s Eddie Murphy on Saturday night Live:
MURPHY (ON SNL): “This tastes pretty good, man. Mind if we take a peek at the recipe?" And Dr. Carver says, "Take a peek? Man, you can have it. Who's gonna eat butter made out of peanuts? No, I'm working on a method to compress peanuts into phonograph needles." (Laughs).
CHANDLER:(Laughs) You know, peanut butter wasn’t invented by Carver – it was not – that’s a common mistake, you know. The peanut was kind of forced on him by the peanut growers (LAUGHS) association. Took advantage of him as the peanut man.
SRISKANDARAJAH: In 1921 the Peanut Association asked George Washington Carver to make a case to Congress for a favorable peanut tariff. So he trekked to Washington with his peanut-based milk, instant coffee, ice creams, dyes, pomade, and entire peanut-inspired meals. As Carver began his show and tell, one Congressman from Connecticut asked if he’d brought any watermelon too. Carver sidestepped the racist dig; “You know,” he said, “we can get along pretty well without dessert.” His expertise and wit won over the committee, won the tariff and won him the status of an American icon.
HERSEY: People can read into him what they want to read into him.
SRISKANDARAJAH: Mark Hersey, an Assistant Professor of history at Mississippi State University just wrote an environmental biography of Carver,“My Work is That of Conservation.” It’s only the third scholarly book on the famous scientist. Hersey met me in a small cemetery, at the heart of Tuskegee’s campus – by Carver’s simple headstone.
HERSEY: (reading) "George Washington Carver died in Tuskegee Ala., January 5, 1943: a life that stood out as a gospel of self-forgetting service. He could have added fortune to fame but, caring for neither, he found happiness and honor in being helpful in the world. The center of his world was the south where he was born in slavery some 79 years ago and where he did his work as a creative scientist." SRISKANDARAJAH: The creative scientist’s legacy may be in legumes, but Hersey argues that Carver’s real contribution was conservation. HERSEY: He had a great appreciation for wild areas, a great appreciation for beauty and for forest but he was mostly interested in this sort of lived-in world, and as our population grows, there’s more and more lived-in places. I think he saw more clearly the directions in which the environmental movement would eventually go and has since come.
SRISKANDARAJAH: Carver could be seen as a father of the environmental justice movement, working in impoverished and resource-poor environments. But his brand of science and spirituality is still singular.
HERSEY: Carver could see – he would call it God’s hand – he could see the beauties of nature everywhere. You know, when he was conducting his experiments he would sometimes see the miraculous nature of what was happening.
SRISKANDARAJAH: The place where he worked is now called the George Washington Carver Agricultural Experiment station. Dr. Walter Hill now sits in Carver’s chair as the head of the College of Agricultural, Environmental and Natural Sciences at Tuskegee. We drive up to the windy fields.
HILL: Turn on the car, and we’re getting ready to proceed into the experiment station. And you can even see on our left, you see the fields in front of us, the grasslands, cattle grazing lands, you see the greenhouses in the distance. Now we’re passing the goats. You’re going to see a lot of that.
SRISKANDARAJAH: The dirt road cuts through hundreds of acres of University farmland. Hill pulls over at a part of the farm where Carver conducted his experiments – it’s still an active research site today.
HILL: See if we can get the gate open. This is where we do most of our field crop work.
SOUNDS OF WIND AND METAL GATE, DOOR BEEPS]
SRISKANDARAJAH: Dr. Carver developed field techniques to help impoverished sharecroppers – promoting compost, manure, and leaves from the swamp instead of expensive chemical fertilizers. Some farmers prospered, but many of the poorest, most vulnerable left.
HILL: His people, my people – the African American, the black American in the black belt region left the south, seeking better opportunities, but many stayed and the time we are in now, many are returning.
SRISKANDARAJAH: Dean Hill has carried Carver’s vision into the 21st century, and gotten assistance from an unlikely source. Walmart’s “sustainable agriculture initiative” is buying blueberries, tomatoes, peaches, melons, strawberries and peppers from small farms, including some in the black belt. It’s still early, but Dean Hill is optimistic.
HILL: The good thing is that the conversation like that between a giant like that, a global giant and these small farmers is just amazing, just amazing. Boy, you bring joy, happiness into their lives and the people work harder than ever. And the children get to see their parents working hard so they get all excited about it.
[WIND START TO PICK UP]
HILL: I get excited, man! I’m excited!
SRISKANDARAJAH: As Dean Hill speaks, he paints a vivid picture of Dr. Carver.
HILL: He could walk along a little patch of grass like we see here and he would see a thousand things, whereas we’re here looking and we may see only 10. You know? And, he would get a little closer and in that micro area he’d see another 50. Then he would also turn the soil – he would go deeper.
[SOUNDS OF DIGGING]
HILL: Because he understood –and he could project down two, three, four feet down in his mind’s eye and see the horizons – the different colors and shapes that hold water and hold moisture and hold nutrients in different ways. That’s what it’s all about, too, we’ve got to understand the soil, the water, the grass, the air, and we have to understand each other.
SRISKANDARAJAH: He whispers something inaudible to a handful of soil and carefully pats it back into the earth, in the very place where George Washington Carver once dug. For Living on Earth and Planet Harmony, I’m Ike Sriskandarajah. Happy Juneteenth.