Like many of you, we associated the name George Washington Carver with peanuts, but couldn’t really tell you why. The knowledge that he was a botanist seemed familiar, but that was about the extent of what we remembered from school. A visit to the George Washington Carver National Monument would forever change this. The site is located in Diamond, Missouri, which lies just about 20 minutes south of Joplin. Our contact at Visit Joplin suggested a visit, so we made sure to add it to our itinerary. It ended up being an educational eyeopener.
The Early Years
Born into slavery in the 1860’s, his life was tumultuous from the start. At one week old he was kidnapped, along with a sister and his mother, by raiders from Arkansas. An agent sent to recover them was only able to locate George. He and a brother were raised by his slave owners, Moses and Susan Carver, even after slavery was abolished. Driven by curiosity, George would spend many hours studying the plants and soil in the lands around his home. “Aunt” Susan Carver would teach the boy to read and write. During our visit to the park we took time to stroll the 1 mile walk that leads around the homestead property. Along the way we found placards that help explain the philosophy of George Carver. It is mentioned in one of the signs that George had a secret garden somewhere on the land.
About halfway through the paved walk we came upon the Carver house. It reminded us of the simpler days, when families spent more time engaged with daily rituals. We could imagine the young Carver running the grounds and observing the plants and animals he discovered. Although education was limited for colored people during this period, George’s drive to learn gave him courage to find ways to succeed. He attended assorted schools and finally received his diploma in Minneapolis, Kansas. Denied attendance to a Kansas college due to race, he claimed a homestead and worked the 17 acre farm by hand. Here he produced a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, and continued his passion for agriculture.
Furthering His Education
In 1890, Carver began his college studies in Indianola, Iowa. Encouraged by his art professor, he moved to Iowa State Agricultural College to continue his education. In 1891, he became the first black student at the college. After receiving his bachelors degree, some of his professors convinced him to pursue his masters. He eventually became the first black faculty member at Iowa State. In 1896, George received an invitation to head the Agricultural Department at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Here he would befriend Booker T. Washington, the head of the school. Carver would teach at the university for 47 years, identifying new approaches to crop rotation. George developed a “traveling wagon” that allowed the classroom to be brought to the farmers in the fields.
During his teaching career, he often clashed with Booker and committee members. George was first and foremost a researcher and felt that he was not receiving the materials and supplies needed for successful research. Often he would offer up his resignation only to be insured that his administrative duties would be reduced. After Booker’s death in 1915, his successor reduced the amount of administrative tasks assigned to Carver, so that he could better focus on research. From 1915 to 1923, George experimented with finding new uses for many everyday crops. He rose to become one of the most well known African-Americans of this period.
Learn With The Plant Doctor
Inside the George Washington Carver National Monument we found a series of informational displays on his life. Moving up to the second level, we discovered a section that focuses on his years as an educator. This area is filled with hands-on exhibits that showcase many of his discoveries. For many decades, cotton had been the main crop in much of the South. The constant planting had deprived the soil of much of its nutrients and harvests dwindled. Carver developed a plan to rotate crops, by inserting the plantings of legumes (peanuts or soybeans) or sweet potatoes into cycle. This would return much needed nitrogen to the soil and improve subsequent cotton crops. It also allowed the farmers to develop alternate cash crops. In this section of the building, visitors can perform their own experiments and study some of the findings that Carver had seen for himself. It’s a great spot to let the kids burn off some energy while learning about agriculture.
His life may have began with much strife, but it never slowed him down. Throughout George Washington Carver’s adult life he found success and eventually fame. He had numerous papers published in various publications. Carver met with three American presidents and the Crown Prince of Sweden studied with him for three weeks. In the main building, we saw evidence of the many products he helped discover. Carver eventually developed over 300 products from the peanut. These include plastic, dyes and even cosmetics. He also created over 100 from sweet potatoes.
George Washington Carver died in 1943, after a fall at home. He was buried at Tuskegee next to his friend Booker T. Washington. That same year, President Roosevelt dedicated funds for the national monument at the homestead in Diamond, Missouri. This would be the first national monument dedicated to an African-American. During our walk we came upon the Carver Family Cemetery. The graves of Moses and Susan Carver are found here along with other family members. As our tour of the George Washington Carver National Monument came to an end, we left with a better understanding of the “Peanut Man”. What we discovered was the story of a man who overcame every obstacle that was set before him. In the end, he followed his passion and it made the world a better place for future generations.
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