George Washington Carver was once one of the most famous men in the US. Now, we remember him mostly as the Peanut Man. Otherwise, he’s nearly forgotten. But perhaps we should remember him above all as an early environmentalist.
One can hardly talk of environmentalism before the 1960s. Four major national conservation organizations started operation before the Second World War: Sierra Club, National Audubon Society, Izaak Walton League, and National Wildlife Federation.
These groups advocated preservation of wilderness, hunting and fishing grounds, and wildlife. They had white and mostly wealthy membership.
Agrarian reformers performed equally important, if less recognized, conservation work. Carver’s most characteristic achievements came in the context of this movement. And, of course, working on behalf of impoverished black farmers.
Late in life, he summarized his entire career saying, “My work is that of conservation.” Instead of preserving national parks or conserving wilderness areas, Carver worked to conserve fields ruined by decades of cotton monocultures.
Carver’s early years
Carver’s birthdate, and even birth year, is unknown. According to the 1870 census he was 10 years old, which would mean he was born in 1860. But according to the 1880 census he was 15, which would mean he was born in 1865.
Carver himself said on one occasion that he was born two weeks before the Civil War ended and on another that he was born in 1864.
If we can’t know when he was born, we can at least be sure of the broad outlines of his early life. He was born to a slave named Mary. Her owner Moses Carver was a prosperous farmer in southwestern Missouri known, ironically, for his anti-slavery views.
Pro-Confederate activists kidnapped Mary and young George. Carver managed to find George, but not Mary. George’s father had already died in an accident. Carver and his wife raised George and his older brother. Being raised by a white couple shielded George from many, but not all, of the indignities suffered by other black children in Missouri.
Moses Carver took good care of his land and kept his soil fertile. George was a sickly boy couldn’t work in the fields. Nevertheless, he took keen interest in everything on the farm––especially the woods––and started collecting biological and geological specimens. The nearest school for blacks was eight miles from the farm, so when George was about 12, he boarded with a black couple so he could attend.
From there, Carver lived in various places in Kansas and Iowa. He acquired his deep Christian faith during that time and owned a farm for a while.
In 1890, he enrolled as an art major at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa, its only black student at the time. His art teacher suggested that he enroll at Iowa Agricultural College (IAC, now Iowa State University), where her father taught horticulture. Although Carver aspired to a career in art, he concluded that God wanted him to learn the science of agriculture and pass that knowledge on to other black people.
At IAC, Carver learned about the new science of ecology. Its central tenet was the idea that organisms are not unrelated to each other but interdependent with their environment.
He was a brilliant student and presented his first published scientific paper when he was a junior. It shows themes that would eventually define his career: an appreciation for species that most people didn’t care about and his abhorrence of waste. He believed that nature existed for humans to use, but not to misuse. He also made lifelong friends among the faculty and stayed to complete his master’s degree.
Christian faith as the foundation of Carver’s thought
Carver lived through the Scopes trial and the controversy between Christian “fundamentalists” and “modernists,” but never for a moment recognized any conflict between Christianity and science.
As a teacher, he encouraged his students to read the Bible twice a day but also study God through what he created. He could see God not only in the beauty of a sunset or flower, but also in microscopic fungi and decaying vegetation.
This vision undergirded his understanding of ecology. He consistently insisted that all life, including humans, was not only interdependent with all other lifeforms but also inextricably bound up in interrelationship with its Creator.
Because the natural world is God’s handiwork and reflects his glory, man’s abuse of it is not only economically counterproductive but morally wrong. And because God produces no waste in nature, farmers are morally obligated to not to consider anything a waste. Everything has valuable uses. It is impossible to understand Carver’s work without taking full account of his reverence for nature and nature’s Creator.
Tuskegee Institute and Alabama
In 1896, Carver accepted a position as head of the agricultural department at Tuskegee Institute in Macon County, Alabama. When Carver arrived there, it almost amounted to moving to a foreign land.
In January 1865, Gen. William T. Sherman, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, and 20 black leaders had met in Savannah, Georgia.
Most of the blacks were Methodist or Baptist pastors who had actually been born as free blacks in slave states . Most of the rest had been slaves themselves. As a result of the meeting, Sherman issued an order to redistribute plantation land to the newly freed slaves. Each would receive 40 acres and a mule.
Unfortunately, that fall President Andrew Johnson overturned the order and returned all the land to the planters who had led the rebellion. The resulting sharecropping system left blacks with nominal freedom but renting land from their former owners under very unfavorable terms. The Supreme Court’s Plessy vs Ferguson (1896) acknowledged legal segregation. Strict Jim Crow laws soon followed.
Alabama differed from Iowa not only socially and politically, but ecologically. Decades of devoting land to cotton and corn had exhausted the soil and caused serious erosion. Cotton farmers had to plow frequently to remove grass that would otherwise choke out the cotton. In so doing, they removed the plants that would otherwise hold the soil.
The cost of growing anything in such soil exceeded the value of the crop. The oppressive heat and humidity of Alabama summers exceeded anything Carver had ever experienced. It rained harder, too, which further eroded the soil.
Carver’s early experience in Tuskegee
While Carver had long experienced racism, he had never encountered the kind of oppressive legal system and visceral hatred black people had to live with in Alabama.
Perhaps the biggest shock, though, came from his relationships with other Tuskegee faculty members. They had all grown up in the South and attended black universities. Carver, a Midwesterner and graduate of a white university, seemed like an arrogant outsider. And he didn’t yet understand Tuskegee’s precarious finances.
Carver took control of ten acres of rundown land similar to what tenant farmers worked. He quipped that if he threw an ox into one of the ditches, he could look down on it. He noted that it was poor land both physically and chemically. Tree stumps dotted the deforested land.
So he and his students filled in the gullies with organic rubbish such as cotton stalks, leaves, and whatever else would compost in place. They topped it with dirt it to keep it in place and removed about a hundred stumps. Then they divided the property into plots of one-tenth of an acre. In 1905, the station received another nine acres specifically for experiments with cotton.
Immediately in his first year (1897), Carver began to plant other crops besides cotton, especially legumes that would return nitrogen to the soil. At the end of the growing season, all the food crops had either been eaten by Tuskegee students or sold at market. Crop diversity remained a large part of his message.
Tuskegee’s experiment station functioned as a satellite of Auburn University’s. Its main function was to promote the use of chemical fertilizer. At first, Carver did so with enthusiasm. He eventually soured on it as too expensive for poor farmers. He wanted to show them how to make compost.
Carver as teacher
Carver’s teaching method reflected his interest in ecology. He taught in terms of relationships. He would demonstrate with some natural object, explaining how God arranged natural processes to created it and what it contributed to its surroundings. Thus, he could demonstrate the interrelationship of various scientific disciplines instead of considering them separately.
He defined agriculture as “the cultivation or manipulation of the soil in such a way as to bring about the greatest possible yield of products useful to man with the least injury to the soil and at the least expense.”
That part after the word “man” is key. Too often, people are content to exploit nature without regard for any harm their activities might cause. As the way decades of cotton production demonstrated, eventually good soil will become bad soil.
In addition to his teaching load at Tuskegee, Carver organized monthly classes for local farmers. Later, he started his Short Course in Agriculture, a series of lectures given for farmers in the winter. He also participated in Tuskegee’s annual Negro Farmers’ Conference, which attracted farmers from a greater distance. As his fame grew, so did his traveling and speaking engagements.
The Agricultural Experiment Station issued regular bulletins. The first one (1898) noted that it had essentially the same objectives as any similar station, but it also recommended that farmers gather acorns for livestock feed instead of treating them as waste products.
This recommendation marks some differences between Carver’s approach to scientific agriculture and that of most other agronomists. For one thing, it reflects Carver’s lifelong abhorrence of waste. It also demonstrates his willingness to look to the past for inspiration. And it signaled his mission to help the struggle of poor black farmers. After all, acorns were free for the taking.
Carver and chemurgy
Carver’s conviction that poor farmers needed to stop specializing in cotton and find new uses for overlooked products made him a pioneer in the chemurgy movement. Agriculture had become more scientific by the 1920s, and chemurgy sought to use it as a source of industrial products.
As the field developed, however, it became more interested in industrial development than proper development of the soil. Farmers had started to produce more food than the market could bear, and chemurgists sought ways to turn it into inedible products such as paper, motor fuels, or plastics. Thus, although Carver had been one of the earliest of chemurgists, the discipline went in directions antithetical to his values.
His antipathy to chemical fertilizers only grew with time. By 1936, he wrote, “To our amazement, we are learning that a tomato may not be a tomato nutritionally speaking, but only a hull or shadow of the savory, nutritious, palatable vegetable it should be.” And whatever is applied to a field growing food eventually becomes part of the body of anyone who eats it.
Carver stood apart not only from the development of chemurgy but the general direction of agriculture practice and science. The New Deal extended the reach of government. Agricultural reformers of Carver’s generation had generally rejected any governmental role beyond providing funding for education. Carver himself never showed any interest or even particular knowledge of ideology or political action.
Becoming Mr. Peanut
At the death of Booker T. Washington in 1915, Carver became the best-known person associated with Tuskegee, the best-known black institution in the country. His reputation only increased when he was called to testify to Congress in 1918 about his research with sweet potato flour.
He eventually became more famous for his work with peanuts, but that’s only because an organized peanut industry already existed. The peanut lobby sent him back to Congress to promote a protective tariff on imported peanuts. Afterward, he became known as Mr. Peanut even though he had not personally created any new and marketable peanut products.
Carver’s emergence as Mr. Peanut effectively ended his work on behalf of black farmers. His production of experiment station bulletins virtually ceased. He published 37 by 1918 and only six more during the rest of his life. His fame also put an end to his teaching on campus and administration of the experiment station. Few aspects of the vision he had brought to Tuskegee remained in the operation of the station.
Carver later regretted moving so far away from his campaign to help poor farmers. But technology had already rendered many of the details obsolete, anyway. The emergence of the tractor and other new technologies, for example, eliminated or reduced the number of farm animals and therefore the amount of manure available for composting.
But if Carver’s emphases had changed, his environmental vision had not. He still hated waste, loved the natural world, and recognized its complexity and fragility.
Carver’s reputation in life
People saw what they wanted to see in Carver. Black people saw him as a shining example of black attainment. Southern whites saw his humility and hard work. In other words as a subservient and therefore safe and unthreatening black person. The peanut industry, of course, saw him as their most effective spokesman.
After years of laboring in obscurity, Carver enjoyed the attention and fame. He made some attempts to deflect the most exaggerated accounts of his accomplishments, but he never bothered to deny some of the outright falsehoods in how people described him.
His acceptance of some of the exaggerations of his expertise in chemistry, however, reflect more than just enjoyment of flattery. Carver’s student John Sutton recalled that Carver regarded himself as primarily an artist. He created his art with what nature supplied. What’s more,
He knew that he was not “a real chemist” so-called engaged in even applied chemical research. He used to say to me jokingly, “You and I are ‘cook-stove chemists’ but we dare not admit it, because it would damage the publicity that Dr. Moton [Booker T. Washington’s successor] and his assistants send out in press releases about me and my research, for his money-raising campaigns.”
His eventual fame, limited as it was to his work on peanuts, obscured the significance of his achievements as a whole. For example, Roosevelt’s Secretary of Agriculture, Henry A. Wallace, was the son of one of Carver’s mentors at IAC. He had known Carver most of his life and greatly respected him.
But he knew little of Carver’s work at Tuskegee before his work on peanuts catapulted him to fame. And he thought Carver’s reputation as a “creative chemist” had been exaggerated. If Wallace had known his old friend’s work more thoroughly, Carver might have influenced agricultural policy.
Carver’s reputation after his death
Carver died in 1943. The George Washington Carver National Monument, approved by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1945 was not only the first dedicated to a black man, but also the first to honor anyone but a President.
But the exaggeration of Carver’s scientific accomplishments caught up with his reputation. He did not, in fact, contribute much new knowledge in terms of theoretical science. Nor did he invent anything noteworthy. So he is absent from textbooks of both US history and environmental history.
It’s as if most scholars find nothing noteworthy about him. So elementary school children still study him, but adults seem to think they have outgrown him.
At the same time, he became famous as a black intellectual, he hoped that his experience and attainments would advance race relations in the US. And, of course, they didn’t. In many ways, he utterly failed to accomplish any of what he set out to do.
In some cases, he couldn’t overcome the social and political obstacles in his way. His fame distracted him. Also, Carver practiced scientific agriculture. He had a firm commitment to research and educating farmers in its findings. Yet in many ways, he was always at odds with many of his contemporaries and trends. Perpetual outsiders seldom have much influence.
But instead of being behind his time, as he may have appeared, perhaps he was ahead of it. That is certainly the case when it comes to environmental issues. We have only recently begun to reexamine his legacy.
A summary of why we should remember Carver as an environmentalist
George Washington Carver made significant contributions to our current understanding of sustainability.
Conventional scientific agriculture emphasized increasing production. Carver remained more dedicated to ecology and to improving the living standards of poor black farmers. His vision therefore combined what we now recognize as the three pillars of sustainability: environmental, economic, and social.
His profound reverence for nature and God had nothing of the sentimental in it. It drove his exploration of ecology. He recognized that nature is fragile and that it is all interconnected. He preferred long-term solutions to problems instead of short-term fixes.
Not only did he hate waste, Carver hated the entire concept of waste. Everything in nature properly has a use for something else in nature. Humans ought to benefit, too. For example, he insisted that so-called weeds could provide both nourishing food and useful medicine.
He recognized that many past practices were worth reviving. He called his aim “reversion” and realized it would be a hard sell. Today, many sustainability activists once again advocate drying and canning foods to preserve them. Organic farmers minimize using advanced technology.
He thought the US needed a multitude of small farmers and never supported large-scale industrial farming. And now, much of the sustainability movement has become even more critical of it.
Finally, Carver’s concerns about how chemical fertilizer reduced food’s nutrition anticipated the concerns Rachel Carson ultimately popularized in 1962 with Silent Spring.
This outsider showed great wisdom. In some ways the environmental movement has started to catch up. In other ways, perhaps, it would benefit from adopting his faith and unsentimental reverence for nature.
In search of George Washington Carver’s true legacy / Rachel Kaufman, Smithsonian. February 21, 2019
The land-healing work of George Washington Carver / Brianna Baker, Grist. February 12, 2021
My work is that of conservation: an environmental biography of George Washington Carver / Mark D. Hersey. University of Georgia Press, 2011