Black History Month: Carver inspires science while overcoming hardship

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Most likely, Jan. 5 was a day that local residents were still discussing college bowl games, readjusting to work and school schedules after the holidays and gearing up all attempts to not break New Year’s resolutions.

While it did not appear on any calendars around the office, the United States Congress declared the date Jan. 5 in 1946 as “George Washington Carver Day” in memory and honor of an African-American scientist who had died on the date in 1943. February is Black History Month and it would be noteworthy to look at this man’s life, who contributed to so many things we take for granted today.

Moses and Susan Carver were owners of a small farm near Diamond Grove, Mo., who also owned one slave named Mary. Mary had two small children named James and George. Despite warned by a neighbor that slave raiders (outlaws who stole and resold slaves) were in the area, slave raiders would later change George’s life that night when he and his mother were stolen. Moses Carver went to the rescue to find George alongside a road but would never find George’s mother. The Carvers raised both George and his brother as if they were their own children.

George was often not well in terms of his health as a child. His approach was weak and thin while commonly stuttering with his voice. Nonetheless he was a happy child who loved plants, animals and wanted to learn. Susan taught him to read and provided much of his early education. George loved to read the Bible and he kept and read the Bible that Susan had given him until his death.

At the age of 12 he left the Carver family walking to Neosho, Mo., hoping to attend school. A family took George in and he worked and went to Lincoln School for a few years. Later he moved to Fort Scott, Kan., where he found another family to live with and worked to attend school for a few more years.

Later, moving often but living on his own, George found himself living in a small Kansas town with another George Carver so he added a “W” to his middle name which stood for Washington. Though he had studied art and today his paintings hang in the Carver Museum in Tuskegee, Ala., George wanted to attend college and apply his love for plants and animals to his study.

Attending college was rare for an African-American man in the late 1800s. Through hard work and thriftiness, George attended Iowa State College in Ames, Iowa, to obtain higher education and he graduated in 1896 at the age of between 36-40 years old. Sadly common for slaves, birthdates often were unknown. Hence, the act of Congress recognizing his departure from this life in his memory.

George had become a well-respected scientist. He was asked to remain at Iowa State but Booker T. Washington asked Professor Carver to become a staff member and teacher at an Alabama college known as Tuskegee College that was founded in 1881. Professor Carver decided to go to Tuskegee in the college’s fifth year of existence. He taught science and with the help of his students built a fine laboratory for learning.

Professor Carver was instrumental in teaching and improving soil quality through crop rotation and introduced several crops new to the area besides cotton, the South’s primary mono-culture crop in those days. One of the new crops was peanuts, which many are so fond of today. Another crop introduced was the sweet potato that many continue to enjoy today.

Professor Carver was a simple man. He never married nor had children. Despite having the ability to become a wealthy scientist as Henry Ford donated significant funds to build a new lab and scientists came from around the world to learn from Professor Carver, he chose to stay at Tuskegee.

Professor Carver walked to work, chose for students to be his family, and lived a peaceful life at home reading, especially the Bible given him by Susan Carver. What a neat story where someone who started with so little opportunity was able to seek out opportunity and become revered by so many.

Hopefully this story will motivate and inspire local residents to reflect on the rich societal contributions of black history while also finding opportunity when difficulty surrounds one’s environment.

Visit www.extension.purdue.edu/putnam or contact the local Extension Office by calling 653-8411 for more information regarding this week’s column or to RSVP for upcoming events.

Upcoming Events

Feb. 25 – Beef/Dairy Steer/X-bred Heifer tag/weigh-in, Fairgrounds, 8 a.m.-noon.

March 1 – Planning for Your Farm’s Future, Fairgrounds, 6:30-8:30 p.m. RSVP to Extension Office.

March 11 – Putnam County Ag Day Breakfast, Fairgrounds 8 a.m.

March 11 – Ag Day Mini-Farm Fest, Fairgrounds, 10 a.m.-noon.

March 15 – Junior Leaders, Fairgrounds, 7-8 p.m.

March 16 – Exploring 4-H, Fairgrounds, 6-7 p.m.

March 16 – Soil Health Workshop, Fairgrounds, 6:30-8:30 p.m. RSVP to Extension Office.

April 1 – Beef and dairy steer online enrollment due.