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George Washington Carver & The Peanut

George Washington Carver was born a slave in Newton County, Missouri sometime in the 1860s. The first ten years of Carver’s life are not well documented and much of his childhood remains shrouded in mystery. Raised as an orphan, Carver was understandingly hesitant to revisit memories from his early life. His father was killed before he was ever born and he and his mother were kidnapped by guerilla Civil War fighters when Carver was just an infant. Moses Carver, George Washington Carver’s master, paid a neighbor to find and return the kidnapped pair but he was only able to bring home the infant Carver. What happened to Carver’s mother is still unknown. After the loss of both parents, Carver and his older brother were raised by Moses Carver and his wife Susan. At the age of eleven, Carver left the farm and walked eight miles by himself to Neosho so he could attend a school for blacks. When Carver arrived in Neosho it was too late at night for him to ask a local family to lodge him so he chose to seek refuge in a nearby barn. By the grace of God, the barn Carver chose was owned by a childless black couple named Andrew and Mariah Watkins who took in the young boy and raised him as their own while he attended school.[1]

As a teen, Carver once again set out in search of education and hitched a ride to Olathe, Kansas with a family traveling west. For the next decade or so Carver supported himself by using the domestic skills he learned from Susan Moses and Mariah Watkins. He applied to Highland College in Kansas and was accepted, only to be rejected by the college when he showed up to register for classes after they discovered he was black. Highland College had never admitted a black person to their school before and they had no intention of changing that policy for Carver no matter how bright he was. Disappointed, Carver eventually decided to move to Winterset, Iowa where he encountered a couple who would change his life. The Millhollands met Carver through the church they attended, where Carver sang in the choir. Impressed by this kind-hearted and deeply religious man, they invited Carver to Sunday dinner at their home where they became fast friends. Carver’s relationship with the Millhollands led him to reapply to college after they convinced him that he had a God-given natural intelligence that deserved to be cultivated and nurtured.[2]

Accepted to Simpson College in Indianola, Carver began studying art but soon decided to switch majors after he had a vision that God that intended him to be a teacher. Carver had been deeply religious since he was a young boy and throughout his life had divine visions which he believed revealed his destined path to him. Although he never lost his love for painting, Carver made the pragmatic switch to a degree in agriculture after envisioning himself as a teacher who could help blacks in the South work their way out of poverty through farming. After deciding to change his course of study, Carver enrolled at Iowa State College where he made an enormous impression on the faculty. His natural talent for botany, and his genuine kindness towards others quickly gained Carver a positive reputation at the university. Once he completed his master’s degree at Iowa State, Carver became a professor at the college and continued to research botany.[3]

In 1896, Booker T. Washington invited Carver to Alabama to become the head of the agriculture department at the historic Tuskegee Institute. It was here that Carver flourished as a scientist and began his devoted study of the peanut that brought him fame. In 1920 Carver explained how he came to study the peanut when he was invited to speak at the Young Men’s Christian Association’s summer school program in Blue Ridge, North Carolina. After being introduced by the president of the association, Carver began telling his life’s story, saying:

“Years ago I went into my laboratory and said, ‘Dear Mr. Creator, please tell me what the universe was made for?’ The Great Creator answered, ‘You want to know too much for that little mind of yours. Ask for something more your size, little man.’ Then I asked. ‘Please, Mr. Creator, tell me what man was made for.’ Again the Great Creator replied, ‘You are still asking too much. Cut down on the extent and improve the intent.’ So then I asked, ‘Please, Mr. Creator, will you tell me thy the peanut was made?’ ‘That’s better, but even then it’s infinite…And then the Great Creator taught me to take the peanut apart and put it together again. And out of the process have come forth all these products!” [4]

Anecdotes like these were common topics of conversation with Carver. Rather than viewing science and religion as two irreconcilable subjects, Carver believed science was a crucial tool he could use to understand the secrets of nature that God provided us with. In 1921 when Carver spoke to the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee, he once again revealed the divine origins which fueled his life’s research, stating:

“If you go to the first chapter of Genesis, we can interpret very clearly, I think what God intended when he said ‘Behold, I have given you every herb that bears seed. To you it shall be meat.’ This is what He means about it. It shall be meat. There is everything there to strengthen and nourish and keep the body alive and healthy.” [5]

At the end of his captivating one hour and forty-five-minute address, the Committee Chairman asked Carver how he learned everything he knew, to which Carver replied, “From an old book.” When the Chairman asked what book that was, Carver simply stated, “The Bible.” The Chairman, seemingly mystified, asked Carver if the Bible teaches about peanuts to which he replied, “No, Sir. But it tells about the God who made the peanut. I asked Him to show me what to do with the peanut, and He did.” [6]

The Mercury Collection is lucky enough to have a plaster cast of both George Washington Carver’s face and hand that was made by Isaac Hathaway, the head of the ceramics department at Tuskegee Institute during the same time period that Carver attended the institute. These artifacts are two relics from Carver’s lifetime that give us a glimpse into his personal world and help us to remember and reflect upon his legacy and the historic contributions he made both to science and American history. Although Carver has since passed, artifacts like these help up to preserve his legacy for all of posterity.

Work Cited:

[1] Kremer, Gary R. George Washington Carver: In His Own Words. University of Missouri Press. 1987. p. 3-4.

[2] Kremer, p. 4-6.

[3] Kremer, p. 6.

[4] Federer, William J. George Washington Carver: His Life & Faith In His Own Words. Amerisearch, Inc. 2003. p. 35-36.

[5] Federer, p. 36.

[6] Ibid.

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