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.