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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.


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.


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.


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.

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Historically Black Colleges and Universities have the potential to preserve their historic buildings while sustaining the environment and its resources.  Planet Harmony's Tara Mosby reports on efforts to retrofit landmark buildings on HBCUs.

Tara Mosby: Think about what it would be like to step into a building where Alex Haley spent hours writing fiction. Imagine what it would be like to sort through your thoughts in the same place Martin Luther King Jr. had his dream of equality. How would it feel to touch the antique walls of the room where Rosa Parks began her college education?

This history is preserved in the many historical landmarks that adorn the campuses of America’s historically black colleges and universities. Each of the famous African Americans mentioned not only walked the campus of an HBCU, but achieved something that improved the lives for the next generation.

HBCUs and their students can create a better environment for the next generation who walk these halls. One way to follow in the footsteps of our historic alumni is by reducing the carbon footprint of our historic buildings.

Since many HBCUs are home to historic buildings that won’t be demolished, why not make them sustainable? According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 160 million tons of debris is generated per year because of new construction and demolitions- that’s over a quarter of our annual non-industrial waste.

The EPA also reported that nearly 40 percent of the total U.S energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions come from buildings. Upgrading a historic building with sustainable features such as solar panels, rainwater collection systems and weatherization uses much less new building materials than building from scratch.

LEED is an acronym meaning Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. This system rates the sustainability of buildings.
George M. Sampson Hall (left) at FAMU received a $700,000 grant for historic preservation. Both Sampson and Young Hall (right) are being remodeled.
George M. Sampson Hall (left) at FAMU received a $700,000 grant for historic preservation. Both Sampson and Young Hall (right) are being remodeled. (Photo: Tara Mosby)

The United States Green Building Council awards buildings with LEED certification for being energy efficient, conserving water and other resources, and reducing carbon emissions. This program awards energy efficient buildings at one of three levels: silver, gold, or platinum.

Administrations at HBCUs are already considering LEED retrofitting as a practical way to preserve their historic buildings. In the stimulus bill, twenty HBCUs received a total of 15 million in federal dollars to repair sites listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The United Negro College Fund is supporting energy evaluations at HBCUs through their Building Green Initiative. And currently, Home Depot is accepting votes to divvy up $150,000 for sustainable building projects at HBCUs.

The historic buildings at HBCU’s are already standing; retrofitting them has the potential to save energy and continue the use of present materials.

So imagine that you are touching the same antique walls of the room Rosa Parks started her college education! Those walls have been weatherized! Step into to the building where Alex Hayley spent hours writing fiction- now look up! Those are compact fluorescents. And remember where Martin Luther King Jr. had his dream of equality- I’ve you been to the rooftop… and its covered with solar panels. Not only are Earth’s resources being preserved, but so is history.


President Teddy Roosevelt, the founder of our national parks system, said, "the West will not be won until it is rid of the black, the brown, the yellow and red men."  The legacy of segregation lingers in America's parks- only 1% of the visitors to Yosemite last year were African American.  But Shelton Johnson, an African-America Ranger at Yosemite, is trying to make sure all people visit out nation's most beautiful places. You may remember Ranger Johnson from LoE's story on his "interpretive history tours" where he invokes the spirit of the African American buffalo soldiers who defended Yosemite soon after its creation.

Johnson is still beating the drum for African Americans to return to the park- and now Oprah is listening.  On Friday  “The Oprah Winfrey Show" devoted the full hour to a segment that was taped at Yosemite in response to Mr. Johnson’s appeal.  Orpah and Gayle visited some Redwoods, set up camp and took photographs with the one other black patron they saw.  Part 2 of the episode will be broadcast today. 

Ranger Johnson was also featured in the New York Times, where he told them, “every year, America is becoming increasingly diverse, but that diversity is not reflected in the national parks, even though African-Americans and other groups played a vital role in the founding of national parks. If the national parks are America’s playground, then why are we not playing in the most beautiful places in America?”

Beyond broadening the tent of park patrons, the Park Service also hopes to attract a more diverse force of park rangers. It is actively seeking to recruit employees from historically black colleges and universities.  Check out the Park Service site for job opportunities.

For more on the buffalo soliders that helped found Yosemite, check out our article on a House bill raised to honor their legacy.

    Another year and another failing grade for one of the top historically black universities. Howard University earned an overall grade of D- in the 2010 College Sustainability Report Card. Based on their sustainability criteria, Howard received seven F’s out of nine categories.

    The Sustainable Endowments Institute tracks environmental trends on campuses using a website. provides an in-depth sustainability profile for almost 300 colleges. Schools are graded on shareholder engagement, transportation, food and recycling, and student involvement among other categories.

    It is students who usually drive the green movement and advocate for their schools to become more green. But students on Howard’s campus say despite interest, the green movement there is standing still. For Crystal Nwaogu, a Howard graduate, being green on the campus was not an easy task. She complained that her facilities made it difficult to conserve as much energy and materials as she liked. Her biggest issue was being unable to recycle the daily campus newspaper or soda cans and bottles. Despite the lack of recycling bins, she still made “a strong effort to use recycled materials, reduce shower times, recycle… and conserve energy.”

    In a survey by the Princeton Review of nearly 12,000 college applicants and their parents, 64 percent said knowing a school’s policy on sustainability impacted their decision to apply or attend. Of the 300 schools, only two other HBCU’s were graded, Spelman College and Hampton University. Spelman received a D and Hampton a D+.

    Recent Howard graduate Davani Durette decided to take the sustainability shortfalls on campus into his own hands. While at Howard, Durette began working on a proposal with sustainability suggestions and ways to create interest for the green movement. The proposal outlines some changes the school can make including opening a recycling center to track and repurpose resources already found on campus. Te proposal also recomends a campus-wide initiative to bring in experts to consult on how Howard could improve on infrastructre. 

      Durette says he knows “the green movement at HU has barely scratched the surface” because it has not reached the student body at large. He argues that many people can’t get interested until they understand the impact and importance of ecological consciousness.  He hopes his proposals for Howard bring green to the mainstream there.

    “It can’t progress until people become aware of it and participate in it, beyond dropping off extra paper or plastic bottles on occasion.” Durette plans to motivate students to take that next step and hold the administration accountable. Students want their campuses to engage in constant green events that promote student involvement, senior Jonathan Brhane thinks the simplest idea would be to launch a week of seminars, promoting different ways to be green and highlighting the different benefits of being green.

    Howard received an F for the category of administration, lacking any known policy relating to campus-wide sustainability initiatives. But they aren’t the only ones to blame.  Students on the campus also earned an F, having no active programs to involve students in campus sustainability activities.

    Howard did receive an overall F but the school has made some incremental steps forward from previous years.  In 2010 Howard saw its first campus-wide recycling program and a student involvement initiative through its Environmental and Sustainability Council. In a statement made in the University’s Capstone newsletter Michael Harris, Associate Vice President for administrative services, said “the burden is now on the students, staff and faculty to participate and become good stewards of the environment and to answer the call of conservation.” Spelman College and Hampton University have implemented students councils, green programming and investments to carry on the push toward campus sustainability, raising their green grades in varies categories.

    Students who attended Howard and other HBCU‘s, including Nwaogu, point out that the key is visibility. Nwaogu believes, “showing students, faculty and staff that the university is taking clear strides toward a greener university“ makes a environmentally sustainable campus and even a passing grade that much closer.

Dr. John Holdren has President Obama’s ear on all national science issues, including the underrepresentation of minorities in the sciences. The Science Advisor tells Planet Harmony and Living on Earth’s Steve Curwood why America needs people of color working in the sciences to solve our nation’s energy and climate challenges.
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