This story is published in partnership with Ozarks Alive, a cultural preservation project led by Kaitlyn McConnell.
DIAMOND — This month marks an end, beginning, and continuation of a legacy that touched the world — but had its start right here in the Ozarks.
It was on Jan. 5, 80 years ago, when famed scientist George Washington Carver died, and 76 years ago when the U.S. Congress first recognized the day in his memory. Yet it is every day we benefit from the work of this man who overcame so much.
I knew the last fact, but learned the former ones when I visited the George Washington Carver National Monument last Saturday. When land was procured for the park after his death in 1943, it was the first site in the national park system to be dedicated to an African American.
I write these words today as a reminder, and a confession. In all of my wanderings throughout the Ozarks, I never visited the Carver monument until a few days ago. The delay wasn’t intentional. I have written about Carver’s life in connection with stories featuring the Neosho Colored School, where he first attended classes, and Mariah Watkins, a midwife who influenced his early years. But while I always intended to get over to the monument, it just never happened.
As I toured the site, my heart was touched by what my eyes read, but also by what they saw. Looking over the fields and trees that dot the landside, it was amazing to connect, in a way, the same sights as he did when he began. It was a meaningful start for science and his work with plants.
But also for humanity, considering his efforts to do good for all, and to build bridges with his life.
“Through exploring his journey we learn how he dealt with significant hardships, responded to racial hatred, loved everything in nature, demonstrated his love of the environment, maintained a passion for art, lived a deeply religious faith life, communed with the Creator, committed his life to the service of others, had imperfections, and made a very positive difference in this world,” Lana Henry, president of the Carver Birthplace Association, tells me. Before serving through the designated cooperating group for the national monument, she worked there in a variety of roles for more than 40 years.
“His life story inspires, gives hope, encourages, motivates.”
From slave to student and artist
That story began around 1864, but the exact date is unknown.
According to information at the monument, Carver once said, “I was born into slavery. I was a chattel. We were all chattels. They didn’t keep records of us. I don’t know how old I am.”
Shortly after his birth, Carver and his mother were kidnapped; their owner — Moses Carver — traded a horse for his safe return. Carver’s mom was never seen again.
From a young age, he carried a love of plants and the great outdoors, facts that had new meaning for me as I looked upon the land where he himself gazed.
When Carver was a child, he left the farm and traveled around eight miles away to Neosho, the county seat of Newton County. It was a monumental moment: just a few years prior, Blacks were not allowed to learn to read or write in Missouri. It was outlawed by the state legislature in 1847, only ending in the 1865 state constitution when “separate schools for children of African descent” became legal.
Carver stayed with the Watkins family in Neosho while attending the small, one-room school. The time grew his faith and hunger for education. He eventually left for Kansas where, while working a variety of odd jobs, he was able to graduate from high school in his 20s.
Later, he was accepted into college, but upon arrival, was dismissed. Because he was Black.
The institution hadn’t realized that fact until he arrived.
Carver later went to Iowa. He was initially hired as head cook at a hotel to support himself, an effort which later evolved into running a laundry while he studied art. Among other handiworks, he was a recognized painter; one of his pieces earned an honorable mention at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.
Switching to the study of science
He eventually switched to the study of science, graduating with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in agricultural science from Iowa State Agricultural College.
In 1896, he left for Alabama to serve at the newly opened Tuskegee Institute, a school started by famed educator Booker T. Washington in an effort to improve the lives of Black people through education and skill development.
Carver was at Tuskegee for nearly 50 years. There was work with peanuts, sweet potatoes and much more; scientific developments and education to help farmers, many who were Black and impoverished; and the decision to accept attention in building bridges between races. An example of the latter came in 1921 when Carver testified before the Ways and Means Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives on behalf of the peanut industry.
Despite racially fueled belittling during the hearing, his suggestions were ultimately taken seriously. A tariff was passed, boosting U.S. peanut producers and helping launch him into national fame.
Those notes are just a few of the many things Carver touched during his lifetime, which ended more than a decade before U.S. public schools were integrated and nearly 20 years before the Civil Rights Act.
Carver’s life ‘represents much good for our world’
While most of us may not become scientists or agricultural experts, I believe fundamental aspects of Carver’s story can translate to our lives today. And I think that’s why I was especially bothered that I hadn’t made visiting the national monument a priority until now.
I consider our ongoing conversations about racial equality in our world. I also think of my elementary education, which in my early years left me with an impression of Carver as simply the peanut man. Not saying my teacher didn’t tell me more — but that’s what my young mind understood the most.
And while my personal knowledge has grown since then, visiting the monument reminded me of how we see “famous” people. When we consider acknowledging the realities of racism in our past and present, I think we need to consider how much weight we give to the contributions of all people. In my mind, Carver perhaps contributed more than most we think of as famous today.
His life represents much good for our world. It goes beyond facts and figures, and is a multi-layered story of intelligence, dedication, service to others, and never giving up, even if it feels like others try to hold you back.
They are qualities that we all can aspire to. Ones I hope we also consider when we think of the great Ozarks leaders.
And maybe we can pay an invisible debt by taking the time to acknowledge, understand and appreciate what he gave us.
The George Washington Carver National Monument is located near Diamond, Missouri. For more information, click here.