In January 1921, George Washington Carver traveled from Tuskegee, Alabama, across the Jim Crow south and into the segregated nation’s capital. He was there to extol the value of southern farmers’ peanuts as the House Ways and Means Committee considered tariffs on imports. Crowd-pleasing presentations like the one he gave that day, and on many more days all across the south, earned Carver the moniker “The Peanut Man.”
Although this caricature of Carver persists today in children’s books and the cultural lore around this unique life, it misses the deeper, nobler point of Carver’s work. That’s because, to Carver, the peanut wasn’t just some curious media for his experimentation or a vehicle to a profitable career. Rather, to Carver, the nitrogen-fixing properties of the peanut was life-support for impoverished soils of southern farms and the protein-rich nutritional profile of the peanut was nourishment for bodies of Black farmers he sought throughout his life to serve.
Serving people, not peanuts
In his own words, the goal of Carver’s work was “…to help the farmer and fill the poor man’s empty dinner pail….to help the ‘man farthest down’.” Thus the peanut, along with the sweet potato, cow pea, alfalfa, and more became simply a means to achieve an end on which he focused his work — healthy communities built on healthy farms. Unfortunately, Carver’s legacy was largely eclipsed by his “Peanut Man” caricature, rather than being remembered for his work in blending science, art, and compassion in service of the greater good. As one of his biographers, Dr. Mark Hersey writes, it was perhaps “inevitable that a capitalist nation would judge Carver’s agriculture vision on the basis of its industrial and economic merits.” Fortunately, the broad, lasting environmental and social relevancy of George Washington Carver’s work is today coming to light.
Save the soil, save the farm, save the farmer
As captured well in his advocacy work for the peanut, Carver saw the need for agriculture to serve the people of the farm first and foremost, ahead of the prevailing practice of his day (and perhaps ours) of mining the soil for profits largely accrued off the farm. Thus, Carver sought to find ways to diversify the largely exploitative cotton farms of his home county in Alabama by promoting a diversity of crops. In summarizing this notion in 1914, Carver wrote “thoughtful farmers are aware that any one crop system is disastrous to the average farmer and those who are living independently and happily on the farm are those who diversify their crops.”
In that same article, Carver espoused the readers of Negro Farmer to extend kindness granted people (though notably not Black people in the Jim Crow south) to the soil, because “unkindness to anything means an injustice done to that thing” and the farmer “whose soil produces less every year is unkind to it in some way; that is he is not doing by it what he should.” A concise land ethic articulated 35 years before the publication of that other famous Iowan’s version.
Carver also worked hard to practice what he was preaching in bringing back the soils of the university’s research farm. I wonder if Carver was harkening back to his days in Iowa’s richly organic soils when he admonished administrators at Tuskegee to “look to the permanent building up of our soils” on the school farms, further asserting “the crying need of nearly every foot of land we have in cultivation is vegetable matter (humus).” There, he worked to diversity the farm, add organic nutrients from compost, and integrate livestock to make the university’s farm a model for the community.
Be yourself, be creative
Carver was by all accounts a conspicuous man: a talented and creative artist; a highly educated Black man in agriculture at a time where there were few others; a humble dresser but for the flower always adorning his lapel; and a man with a general disregard for gender roles in a society where each eccentricity was suspect. It was perhaps this general disregard for norms that made Carver such a strong advocate, creative thinker, and problem solver. As Hersey recounts in his book, one of Carver’s students wrote proudly to inform him “he was employing what he had learned at Tuskegee ‘against the will of every farmer’ in his community, and was getting spectacular results.”
Carver was a mind for the ages. Blending a love for art, humanity, and science into a special educational model for his time. Today he would be lauded for his worldly thinking and keen ability to transcend the boundaries of art and science in search of a more inclusive, equitable world. He was selfless in a way the best of public servants are.
Carver saw connections between race and privilege, class and conservation, decades before most. He knew how the deck was stacked against him and his contemporaries in a racist system not built to embrace the diversity he knew it needed. Some have criticized Carver for not standing stronger in the face of racist policies and practices of his day. But Carver was not simply a bystander. Just as he admonished Tuskegee administrators to practice what they preached for the health of the land, he dismissed segregationist’s arguments in favor of Jim Crow policies, saying “gentlemen what you do speaks so loud, I can’t hear what you say.”
We in the conservation and agricultural community are wise to heed the lessons of George Washington Carver’s life and vision for a love for land and a love for all people. To put people and soil ahead of short-term profit and narrowly-defined progress. To break down barriers put in place to keep creative thinkers or new voices away. To think creatively and act boldly. To let our actions speak louder than our words so as to help the land and people, especially those ‘furthest down.’
Author’s note: Each quote featured in this article came from either My work is that of conservation: An environmental biography of George Washington Carver or George Washington Carver: In his own words, Second edition. The former is highly recommended reading.