John S. Stewart/AP
The George Washington Carver National Monument in Diamond, Mo., was the first dedicated to a nonpresident.
He did something, probably a lot of somethings, with peanuts.
That's basically the response I got when I asked people — my friends, folks on Twitter — what they knew about about George Washington Carver.
The details were hazy, but folks remembered that Carver was really important.
Oh, and something about Tuskegee! Wait, did he invent the peanut?
They half-remembered writing book reports about him in elementary school. And then a lot of them sheepishly acknowledged their ignorance.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should say here that I shared the same vague grasp about Carver's accomplishments, despite the fact that my high school is named after the guy. To me, he was the peanut dude.
Carver is, in a lot of ways, the Black History Monthiest of all of our Black History Month mainstays. All of the other folks who would be in your black history flashcard set — Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, W.E.B. Du Bois, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman — had discrete achievements that can be easily recalled; they get name-dropped throughout the year. But Carver is pretty much a February-only kind of deal. There's no Civil Rights Act he can be credited with helping to formalize, no foundational political theories he espoused, no popular innovation that he developed.
And yet. In 1941, Time dubbed him the "black Leonardo." He was a close friend of Henry Ford, a fellow eccentric and inventor. He was the first nonpresident to have a monument established at his birthplace by the National Park Service. Two decades after his death, the opera singer Marian Anderson christened a nuclear submarine that bore his name.
Linda McMurry, author of the biography George Washington Carver: Scientist and Symbol, writes that Carver was ubiquitous in his time, and one of the dozen or so most famous people in America. "In the last four years of his life, his name was attached to almost everything even remotely connected with blacks, such as a 'colored theatre' in Norfolk, a swimming pool in Indianapolis, a settlement house in Pittsburgh, a 'professional building' for Negroes in Cincinnati, and a Women's Christian Temperance Union chapter in Atlanta," she writes. "Eventually it became practically impossible to enter a black community anywhere in America without being reminded of the existence of a man named George Washington Carver."
So how is it that Carver, who was once one of the most famous men in America, black or white, has become a guy so few of us really know? Just how did he become such an integral part of the Black History Month pantheon?
A Contested Legacy
When I started digging around, I found that there's a whole world of Carver fans, people who see the farm scientist as a paragon of grace. But even some of them admitted that Carver's scientific legacy was probably overstated.
"There's a lot of hyperbole around Carver," Peter Burchard, one of those aforementioned Carver lovers, told me. He's finishing up a biography on Carver that is due out this summer.
Few of Carver's inventions and ideas ever found wide use, because he had a grudging relationship with documentation and was suspicious that his work might be stolen before he could patent it. As such, he didn't pass on that much in the way of research. It's one of the many ironies of his lasting fame. Even in his day, there were people who wondered if Carver was being lavished with attention that should have been given to some of his contemporaries, like the Howard University biologist Ernest Everett Just.
In his lifetime, Carver was used as a symbol by a wide range of people with incredibly diverse — and often conflicting — agendas. Many black folks cited him as proof of the value of education, while others thought the darker-skinned Carver was a rebuttal to the common claim that prominent, light-skinned blacks owed their intelligence to some putative white heritage. And many whites pointed to him as proof that blacks could succeed without taking apart the system of Jim Crow. Because Carver frequently talked about God and carefully cultivated an image of humility, members of different faiths claimed him as their own, or at least as a kindred spirit.
Because he eschewed making political statements, he was a blank screen onto whom anyone could project his own ideologies.
Paxton Williams, a self-described "Carver-phile," was the executive director of the George Washington Carver Birthplace Association in Missouri. (He also wrote and starred in a one-man play about the scientist's life. When I emailed Williams to pick his brain, he responded cheerily. "I can generally always find time to talk about my friend, George.") Williams told me a story about how in the 1920s, Carver excused himself from a dinner hosted by Henry Ford — Carver was to be one of the honored guests — because he didn't want to upset the whites in attendance. He ate his meal outside by himself. This was not a rabble-rousing dude.
But on another, later occasion, Carver, in his late 70s, showed up at a hotel in New York City he had reserved only to be told that there were no available rooms. He waited for hours to have his reservation honored, and local figures in the press and the publishing world got word that Carver was being denied lodging. They leaned on the hotel and demanded that Carver be served. A white editor and friend of Carver's reserved a room, and was promptly accommodated. But when he tried to give his room to Carver, they were again denied and told that there were no available rooms. The incident became national news, and it was a reminder that Carver's fame didn't insulate him from racism.
"His success both instilled black pride and soothed segregationist consciences, and also gave hope to those left out of the American dream while justifying the position of the successful," McMurry wrote.
Carver wasn't a political man, but he was useful as a symbol for people with a range of diverse (and often contradicting) goals.
Carver was born a slave and was raised by his family's white masters. He was accepted into one college, but was turned away when he showed up for classes and the school's officials realized he was black. He would eventually become the first black student and the first black faculty member at what is now Iowa State University and went on to become a well-respected botanist.
In his early career, Carver was overshadowed by Booker T. Washington, the famed educator who successfully recruited him to teach at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Carver was a devotee of Washington's teachings, and he believed that his agricultural research could help black farmers become more self-reliant. He wanted small Southern farms to become more sustainable and less reliant on cotton — the region's dominant cash crop — for survival.
The relationship between Washington and Carver was a complicated one, in large part because the botanist was kind of a diva. He was beloved by his students, but he wasn't a good administrator and he actively avoided the more mundane aspects of teaching. He regularly threatened to resign from Tuskegee, even though Washington extended him all kinds of privileges other faculty members didn't enjoy, and regularly touted the young scientist's intellect.
"Washington's attitude was really, 'We don't give you a lot of orders, but when we give them to you, you have to do it,' " Burchard said. "Carver had a tremendous amount of respect for [Washington], but it was a little like a little kid who had a great dad who never said 'I love you.' "
When Washington died, Carver was distraught. But his own profile began to rise quickly. His research had given him contacts in the federal government, which gave him more clout. He was named a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts. (McMurry writes that it was never exactly clear who selected him for that honor.)
That fellowship boosted his reputation, and each new honor and award begat more honors still. And despite his image as a paragon of humility, Carver ran with it. He actively cultivated his newfound fame. He spent as much time at speaking engagements on other campuses as he did at Tuskegee.
It wasn't too long after that that the peanut folks came calling.
The Peanut Man
When World War I began and there were shortages of crops and food, Carver's research into alternative uses for sweet potatoes gained a lot of attention from Washington, although they didn't amount to much by the time the war ended.
And the peanut thing? Carver did come up with a whole lot of uses for the peanut, but few of them became widely used. Much of his reputation came after he was adopted as a spokesman of sorts by the United Peanut Association of America — although not without some initial internal debate. (He may have been famous, but he was still black.)
"Despite later claims that he almost singlehandedly transformed the peanut from an inconsequential crop to a multimillion dollar enterprise, a sizable, well-organized, and increasingly powerful peanut business existed even before Carver became its symbol," the biographer McMurry wrote. "Indeed, if the sweet potato industry had been as well organized Carver might have never become the Peanut Man."
In 1921, he went to D.C. on the association's behalf to lobby for a tariff on foreign peanuts. He was supposed to give a brief talk in which he showed off some alternative peanut food products, some of which he ate while he addressed the lawmakers. (One congressman snarkily asked if Carver would like some watermelon to go along with his food, but Carver didn't take the bait, telling him that watermelon was fine, but it was a dessert food.)
The same charm Carver used to win over his Tuskegee students dazzled members of Congress so much that they kept extending his allotted speaking time. ("Your time is unlimited," the rapt committee chairperson told him. It's all the more impressive considering Carver's squeaky and unimposing voice.) When he was done with his presentation, onlookers broke out into applause. The tariff was eventually passed. That incident, improbably, turned Carver into a major national celebrity.
The press began to lay it on thick with the mythmaking (Carver turns down lucrative job offer from Thomas Edison!) and Carver didn't try terribly hard to correct the record on a lot of their exaggerations about him. "The exotic qualities of his life were highlighted and often distorted, and what emerged was an image of Carver singlehandedly remaking the South," McMurry wrote.
His fame meant he was swamped with proposals to develop this or that food-based product, but Carver, never a stickler for details, didn't want to be bogged down with the logistics of manufacturing. So a lot of his business ideas — for paints and dyes and adhesives made from sweet potatoes, peanuts and the like — either dried up or limped along before dying quietly.
Carver In Context
As Carver became increasingly ill with age, Henry Ford had an elevator built in Carver's home to make it easier for him to move around.
I wondered aloud to a friend, Jelani Cobb, a historian at the University of Connecticut and a contributor to the New Yorker, whether Carver's historical import had been overstated. Why does Carver, whose work has little obvious contemporary resonance, matter so much?
He seemed annoyed with the premise of the question. "Carver was important partly because of what he did and the context in which he did it," Cobb told me.
It's pretty hard to argue with that. Here's Carver's backdrop: the interim between the end of slavery and the civil rights movement, a stagnant time for black rights. It was during this span that Jim Crow crystallized, when the Plessy decision came down, when Wilmington, N.C., saw the only successful political coup in American history, when the terrorist Ku Klux Klan had serious mainstream influence and the federal anti-lynching legislation meant to rein the Klan in was a nonstarter in Congress.
Let's think about the degree of difficulty of his trajectory for a second. George Washington Carver, born a slave in Missouri and who became an eccentric agricultural scientist, was the most prominent African-American in the United States following a speech he gave to a congressional committee about tariff protections for peanuts — and all this at a time when blacks were all but absent from mainstream American life. When you consider this, it makes sense that Carver's significance is so hard to translate into contemporary life. His celebrity was so peculiar, so specific to his moment.
After Carver died in 1943, he was compared to his mentor, Booker T. Washington, says Williams. It was not meant favorably. Carver was seen as an accommodationist. And his disinterest in political activism didn't age very well.
"He was not the kind of person to stand up and say, 'I want my rights! You've done me wrong!' " Williams said.
It's important to consider, again, that he wasn't alive for most of the moments that became the signposts of the civil rights movement. He died years before the integration of the military, a decade before the first sit-ins and boycotts and marches. As the civil rights movement increasingly came to define black American life, he became harder to neatly posit in the trajectory of black social progress, even as his name continued to adorn schools and libraries and kids dutifully wrote book reports about him.
When folks criticize and lampoon Black History Month, it isn't the history of black folks they're making fun of. It's a side-eye at the idea that the history of African-Americans — of any people, really — fits neatly into a month and can be reduced to the kind of trivia that might be stamped onto the underside of a bottlecap. These history and heritage months can feel overly precious, too pat. But ideally, they should give us the chance to revisit and reconsider the folks who were mostly quiet on the most pressing issues of their days.
All of which makes Carver, odd as it may seem, a pretty strong argument for Black History Month.
The folks I asked about Carver kept trying to remember the important things he did with peanuts. But while the peanut stuff is the main bullet point, it only sort of matters. It's the messier details that make someone like Carver worth considering. He was a scientist who attended white schools who was friends with some of the most powerful men in America. He wasn't politically inclined, but he was one of America's most famous people at a time when simply being black in public life was necessarily a political act.
And somewhat bizarrely, his race both hindered him and helped make him enormously famous.
"Perhaps the greatest paradox was that Carver became famous as a scientist because he was black, even though his blackness diverted him from becoming a real scientist," McMurry wrote. "If he had been white, he probably would have made significant contributions in mycology or hybridization and died in obscurity. Because he was black, he died famous, without making any significant scientific advances."
Those nebulous advances are the ones folks strain to remember, and everyone feels a kind of guilt for not remembering the specifics around Carver's work peanuts. But that stuff doesn't matter. So let's just go ahead and forget the peanuts.