Southwest Missouri’s Son of Science
On Aug. 25, communities will celebrate the 105th anniversary of National Park Service Founders Day. President Woodrow Wilson signed the Organic Act in 1916, creating the agency to oversee our national parks. Currently there are over 1,200 parks or preservation areas in 100 countries “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people,” the phrase that welcomes visitors to Yellowstone. Six of these monuments are within Missouri’s boundaries, and one of the treasures is located in Senatorial District 32, the George Washington Carver National Monument (GWCNM). Nestled in Diamond, this gem pays homage to the man who matured from educationally deprived bondage into the world renowned “plant doctor.” Few other Americans have earned the respected titles of scientist, researcher, educator, inventor, painter, agronomist, conservationist and humanitarian, so it is fitting to have a national monument dedicated to this agricultural genius. He was the first African-American to achieve this status, the last honor in his lifetime of firsts.
To help pay tribute to our beloved southwest son, the 240-acre park, located on the Carver farm where George grew up, hosts Carver Day each July. The GWCNM was conceived from legislation sponsored by then U.S. Sen. Harry Truman, and it was dedicated on July 14, 1943, six months after his death. I highly recommend watching the 30-minute video on the GWCNM website, “Struggle and Triumph: The Legacy of George Washington Carver,” for a detailed account of his unparalleled life and accomplishments. I’ll summarize a few of his achievements here.
His story begins around 1864 at the end of the Civil War. Orphaned at an early age, after he and his mother were stolen by bandits and sold in Arkansas, he was eventually found and returned to his owners, Moses and Susan Carver, who reared and taught him to read and write following emancipation. In the absence of his biological parents, he was nurtured by the inseparable forces of science, religion, nature and his faith in the Great Creator. He would later describe nature as “an unlimited broadcasting station through which God speaks to us every hour and every moment of our lives if we only tune in and remain so.”
Missouri schools were segregated during his childhood, and since no schools for Black children existed in Diamond, he made the eight-mile trek to Neosho to attend school. He moved to Kansas in search of a more equitable education, and after being denied admittance into college because of his race, he finally ended up enrolling as the first African-American student, and eventually graduate and teacher, at Iowa State University’s College of Agriculture. He would continue to face unsurmountable racial prejudice and was denied housing with the other students, but his resilience, thirst for knowledge and calling to help other African-Americans kept him motivated to succeed. His accomplishments caught the attention of Booker T. Washington, who offered him a teaching position at Tuskegee Institute, launching a career that spanned 47 years.
Believing that “nothing is more destructive to development as ignorance,” he sought to help the “man farthest down.” He created a makeshift lab out of discarded bottles and materials and began conducting experiments. Many Black farmers in those days were poor sharecroppers who had little knowledge of agricultural science or resources to purchase modern equipment, so he responded by teaching them some basic, affordable techniques. One of his most important contributions was the concept of crop rotation to replenish soil that had been depleted of nutrients from repeated cotton planting. To expand the Institute’s agricultural outreach, he stocked a Jelup wagon as a movable school of agriculture where he could demonstrate how to use tools and techniques, a model so successful it was adopted by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture soon thereafter.
As his popularity as a scientist and expertise in cultivating the peanut grew, he was invited to speak at hotels and conferences around the country, but was still was forced to use the servant’s entrance and accommodations. Southern peanut farmers were being undercut by cheaper products from China in the 1920s, so they wanted to create a tariff to level the playing field. In 1921, Mr. Carver was invited by the United Peanut Growers Association to testify on the tariff at a committee hearing with the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee in Washington, D.C. After the panel initially mocked him and limited his time, his vast knowledge converted their suspicion into admiration, dubbing him thereafter as the “Peanut Man.”
Some of his other scientific achievements included diversifying the use of sweet potatoes and peanuts and creating useful byproducts with food, such as dyes, paints, industrial products and medicines. Because many were illiterate, he created illustrated “agricultural bulletins” to teach how to use acorns and vines to feed livestock, create fertilizer from waste, distinguish edible plants from weeds and preserve foods by canning.
As important as these scientific studies were, what really set him apart was his promotion of racial understanding. In the face of violence and prejudice, he persevered by increasing his knowledge and leading by example. Although his work with the Commission on Interracial Cooperation and YMCA produced some promising outcomes, he, like many other African-Americans of the era, could never escape discrimination, racism or being “Ku Kluxed” or “Jim Crowed.” However, he held fast to his conviction, “Fear of something is at the root of hate for others, and hate within will eventually destroy the hater.”
His legacy helped shape modern agriculture and racial understanding. Many museums, schools, contests, events, and even a ship, the SS George Washington Carver, are named in his honor. The Missouri Department of Agriculture is appropriately housed in the George Washington Carver building and has a plaque in the lobby that reads “A proud son of Missouri, a true humanitarian, a trailblazer in agricultural science, technology and philanthropy.”
In addition to Carver Day, GWCNM hosts educational presentations each weekend, and on Aug. 21, it will celebrate the 6th Annual Storytelling Day in conjunction with Founders Day. The VisitJoplinMO.com website lists more details.
If you are an agricultural enthusiast like George, or are just looking for something fun to do this month, consider attending the Senior Day at the Missouri State Fair on Aug. 18. This collaboration between the Department of Health and Senior Services and the Area Agency on Aging offers an opportunity to show off your Jitterbug or Polka moves, campaign for the title of Ms. Missouri Senior, learn to line dance, visit resource exhibits and socialize with others our age. Veterans may also be interested in being a VIP guest at the fair’s Military Appreciation Day on Aug. 15. Call 573-508-5811 to reserve your spot.
I think Mr. Carver would be extremely proud of our community today. We should all try to incorporate a little of his unyielding faith, quest for learning and refusal to succumb to adversity into our daily lives.
This column appeared in the Joplin Globe’s Better Living publication on Aug. 6, 2021.