OPINION: Remembering Black History and the Peanut Man

Isaac Martin, Political Contributor

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“It is not the style of clothes one wears, neither the kind of automobile one drives, nor the amount of money one has in the bank that counts. It is service that measures success.” – George Washington Carver

George Carver was a distinguished scholar and humble teacher, awarded multiple doctorates, a post in the U.S. government and elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in London. He is primarily known for his tremendous work with the peanut, so the story of Carver’s life before fame is recounted less often.

A love for nature

Born near the end of the Civil War and a slave to Moses and Susan Carver, George was orphaned at an early age. The Carvers adopted George and his brother Jim and raised them as their own. George was homeschooled by Mrs. Carver and learned to do the chores of the household. When his chores were completed, George would spend hours in nature studying plants and animals.

“Many are the tears I have shed,” Carver remembered. “Because I would break the roots or flowers off some of my pets while removing them from the ground, and strange to say all sorts of vegetation succeeded to thrive under my touch until… plants from all over the county would be brought to me for treatment.”

A thirst for knowledge

Denied entrance at the local school on account of his skin color and at 11 years old, George moved out of the Carver’s home to go to a school for black children eight miles away. He had an appetite for knowledge and within a year he had learned everything there was to learn at that school. The next 14 years were a time of roaming for George as he attended five different schools and made a living on his own.

Though young, George worked extremely hard and saved his money for schooling. This time was marked by sorrow and joy for Carver. In this time, “Sunshine and shadow were profusely intermingled such as naturally befall a defenseless orphan by those who wish to prey upon them,” he recalled.

He witnessed a lynching of a black man, suffered sabotage by white classmates and was denied admission to a college on account of his skin. However, Carver received kindness from many who supported the broke student’s business endeavors, giving him the resources he needed.

A college man

At 28 years old, the wandering phase of George’s life drew to a close as he enrolled at Simpson College to study music and art. At first, he barely scraped by at Simpson.

“For quite one month,” Carver wrote, “I lived on prayer, beef suet and cornmeal, and quite often being without the suet and meal.”

Through dint of hard work, frugality and the kindness of the community toward him, George eventually excelled at Simpson as a pianist and a painter—one of his artworks was displayed in the World’s Fair of 1894. However, George was more inclined to botany and thus transferred to what is now known as Iowa State University.

There, he quickly gained renown for his research and upon graduation in 1894 was promptly hired as a faculty member where he oversaw systematic botany and all work conducted in the school’s greenhouses. After completing his Master’s in Agriculture, the first African American to do so at Iowa State, George began his work at the Tuskegee Institute.

There he received neither wealth nor prestige, but simply the opportunity to serve.