Thursday, February 20, 2014

George Washington Carver National Monument

So, what do you think of when I say, "George Washington Carver"? 100 uses for peanuts? Look, I try not to get too political on this blog, but we need to talk about Black History Month. Francis and I stopped at this museum on a whim because we saw it on a map and said, "What could this possibly be besides a monument to a peanut?" WHAT, INDEED.

I had no idea, and I mean NO IDEA that George Washington Carver did so many important things for his fellow man during in an era when it was extremely difficult to be a black person. I blame public schools for spending 28 days drilling inane facts into our heads about the same 20 or so people every year. So let's talk about some things G.W. Carver did that you probably didn't learn in school.

George and his mother were kidnapped by slave raiders when George was a baby, near the end of the Civil War. Moses Carver offered a reward for their return, but only baby George was recovered. Moses and his wife raised George and his brother as their own after slavery was abolished. George was too frail as a child for field work, so he helped in the house. He learned to play the violin, piano, organ, and accordion, was a gifted painter, and also learned to crochet and knit.

George Washington Carver had the ingenuity every hoarder thinks they will have some day. He took daily walks in the morning almost every day of his life, and collected and saved all sorts of things. But he actually used them! He would save scraps of string and twine and make rugs, and his whole first lab at Tuskegee Institute was cobbled together with things other people had thrown away.

This museum has amazing classroom and lab space that makes me wish I lived closer so I could be more involved with everything that goes on here. People of Diamond, Missouri, I hope you make use of these programs.

George Washington Carver worked harder than anyone I've ever heard of to get an education. Harder than any person of privilege, and he was born into an era of segregation, where he was not allowed to go to the school in the town where he lived. He participated in social events and "literaries" in his town, but had to go to school 8 miles away. He moved from town to town and state to state, being denied admittance because of his race and then moving on again. He never gave up, because as he said, "Education is the key to unlock the golden door of freedom." Eventually, he was the first black student at Iowa State, the first to get a Bachelor's degree, the first to get a Master's degree, and the first black faculty member.

Here's another person you probably learned one sentence about in school: Booker T Washington. Probably something like, "Booker T Washington was an important African-American educator," right? What does that even mean to a kid? Booker T Washington was the first principal & president of Tuskegee Institute, an all-black state school that was literally built by the students. It became Tuskegee University, one of the top colleges in the country. George Washington Carver headed the Agricultural Department there for 47 years.

It is true that he "invented" 100 uses for peanuts and peanut by-products. He also invented many uses for soybeans, cotton, cowpeas, and tomatoes because they were good crops to rotate on the same land. He was a scientist, and came up with many uses for many plants, all in the name of raising southern farmers (especially first generation freed blacks) out of poverty.

George Washington Carver's main contribution to society, in my opinion, was not 100 uses for peanuts, but the idea of crop rotation and alternative cash crops for southern land decimated by planting cotton and only cotton. He taught farmers how to get nitrogen back into the soil by planting alternative cash crops. He wrote over 40 bulletins for farmers, and taught them about canning and preserving  and self-sufficiency. The Jesup Agricultural Wagon (so named because it was funded by a grant from philanthropist Moris Ketchum Jesup) was a mobile classroom for this purpose.

Outside of the museum, you can take a nature walk through the land the Carver family owned, their original farmhouse, and see the footprint of the slave cabin where George was born, and the woods and creek where he learned about plants and developed his eye for nature painting.


When the National Park Service took over this land, they rebuilt this cemetery wall, and many of the headstones were replaced. George Washington Carver himself is buried on the campus of Tuskegee University in Alabama.

If you want to learn more, and of course you do, you can find the George Washington Carver National Monument in Diamond, Missouri. As you can see from the website, they offer many educational programs, including a Junior Ranger Day.

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