Sunday, January 5, 2014

In Recognition of George Washington Carver

What do Walt Disney, T.S. Eliot, J.C. Penny, Harry Truman and Mark Twain have in common? As many of you may have soon recognized, they were all born in Missouri and are among the most famous Missourians of all time.
But in this column I am writing about another Missourian who deserves to be near the top of the list of notable people from my home state.
The slave boy who came to be known as George Washington Carver was born on a farm near the village of Diamond in the southwest corner of Missouri. The date of George’s birth is not known for sure, but it was probably in the spring of 1865, not long before the end of the Civil War.
We do know when Carver died: January 5, 1943. Later that year his Missouri birthplace was declared a national monument.
Three years later President Truman, who was born in Lamar, Mo., about 40 miles due north of Carver’s birthplace, signed a Joint Resolution on December 28, 1945, saying, “I do hereby call upon officials of the Government to have the flag at half staff on all government buildings on January 5, 1946, in commemoration of the achievements of George Washington Carver.”
Around that same time Public Law 290 was passed, designating January 5 of each year as George Washington Carver Recognition Day.
Since it falls at the beginning of the new year, perhaps Carver’s “recognition day” isn’t observed very much. To be honest, I don’t remember knowing about it before I started reading about Carver recently. Like most of you, I knew that he was known for all his inventions using peanuts. But I didn’t know anything about his early life, some of which I will share with you here.
Shortly after his birth, George and his mother were kidnapped by “bushwhackers” and carried off into nearby Arkansas. Even though Moses Carver, who owned Mary, his only slave, and her children including James (b. 1859) and George, he was a Union sympathizer. He was so concerned about their welfare that he asked a neighbor, who happened to be a Union scout, to search for baby George and his mother.
The scout found George and brought him back to the Carvers, but Mary was never heard of again. Still, Moses was so grateful to have little George back he gave his three-hundred-dollar racehorse to the neighbor in appreciation. Then Moses Carver and his compassionate wife Susan reared George and his older brother as if they were their own children.
George was an avid learner from a young age—but it was not easy for a black boy to get an education in the 1870s. He learned much from his parents and then at the Lincoln School for Negro Children in Neosho. Then he went on to study in other schools, finally completing high school in Kansas when he was about 20.
Later he was able to enter college in Iowa as the only black student in Simpson College. He moved on to what is now Iowa State University, where he graduated and then completed his Master’s degree.
That year, 1896, Booker T. Washington, the founder of Tuskegee Institute, invited Carver to head its new Agriculture Department. He accepted the invitation and taught there for 47 years, becoming one of the greatest botanists and humanitarians of the 20th century—and a man who certainly deserves to be recognized today and on January 5 each year.


  1. Marvelous informative piece, Leroy! Thanks.

    In college, I got heavily into what then was called "Black Studies" (i.e., African-American studies). At that time, there developed among some elements of the civil rights struggle negative views towards people like Washington and Carver because they were seen as not having been critical enough of white oppression. I understood the sentiment to some extent, I think, because I myself was feeling quite angry about our history of white racism, but it was still heartbreaking.

    1. Anton, thanks for reading and responding so quickly to this morning's blog posting.

      I don't remember it from the 1960s or '70s, but in reading about Carver I found references to criticism of him for not being more of an activist. And while I see something of the point of his critics, I think they miss the significance of people like Carver--and B.T. Washington and others who weren't activists--being a role model and inspiration for African-American children.

  2. One Thinking Friend wrote, "The mention of Moses treating George as his own child made me wonder if he was."

    While that sort of thing was, of course, all too common during the days of slavery, I doubt that it was in the case of Moses Carver. From what I have read, George's father was probably a male slave on a nearby farm. And from what little I have read about him, Moses Carver seems to have been a respectable man who probably would not have taken sexual liberties with his slave woman.

  3. I have long admired this man who added so much to humanity while humanity often gave so little to him.

  4. I tried to comment on this a couple of days ago, and somehow Google and I did not get it done. I meant to say that I attended Iowa State back in the middle ages, and discovered they were very proud of their association with Carver. I even attended a number of classes in a building named in his honor.