COLUMN: Pass the peanut butter and a little history, too

George Washington Carver was a slave who, in the face of all odds, become a world-renowned scientist

Black History Month (February) invariably reminds me of George Washington Carver, a man who literally gave me more than food for thought.

Exploring the literary history of what is jokingly referred to as ‘the flyover state’, my guide, Missouri historian and writer Bret Dufur, suggested a detour south along I-71 from Joplin to Diamond where the Carver national monument and museum is located.

Although I’d heard the name, I knew nothing of the slave our families have ‘dined’ with for decades.

Arriving at the unimposing park building in a torrential downpour I ran past the bronze bust of a gentle-faced black man. Inside I discovered a staggering world of scientific history lovingly recorded and simply preserved.

George Washington Carver was a slave, who, in the face of all odds, became a world-renowned scientist.  He discovered 300 uses for peanuts, which included axle grease, shampoo, soil conditioner, paints, mayonnaise, ink, buttermilk and laxative. Expand that to hundreds of uses for soybeans, pecans and sweet potatoes.

Until this minute, I’d never wondered who had invented peanut butter – a nutritious family lunch staple for decades.

It was the civil war era of Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee.

Moses Carver, a Unionist slave-owner who unconventionally opposed slavery, bought a 13-year old black girl called Mary in 1855 for $700.

As time went by, Mary had two sons and possibly twin daughters – though this is unconfirmed. The children were probably fathered by a slave on a neighbouring farm.

Around 1865 Confederate “bushwhackers” kidnapped Mary and her infant son George from the Carver farm during a raid.

George, suffering from whooping cough, was returned to Moses and Susan Carver who raised him.  His mother, Mary, was never found.

George was not certain of his birth date. “About 1864,” he would say. He never knew his father, and his older brother died of smallpox.

Although a sickly child, he was encouraged to learn – something he dedicated himself to passionately. Despite being denied entrance to college (initially) because of his colour, he went on to win international acclaim for, among other things, finding commercial uses for southern resources.

Nicknamed “The Plant Doctor,” he changed the South from a one-crop land of cotton to multi-crop farmlands by teaching crop rotation which enormously benefited farmers.

Profiting from his products was the furthest thing from his mind. “If I know the answer you can have it for the price of a postage stamp,” he would say.  “The Lord charges me nothing for knowledge, and I will charge you the same.”

Dr. George Washington Carver has been recognized as one of the world’s greatest chemists. In 1940, he donated his life savings to establish the Carver Research Foundation at Tuskegee for continuing research in agriculture. He died on January 5, 1943.

His epitaph reads: “He could have added fortune to fame, but caring for neither, he found happiness and honour in being helpful to the world.”

This little-known museum, situated on the land where the slave who became a scientist grew up, deserves more recognition. In a nutshell, Carver’s story humbled, and fascinated, me. Now, when I say ‘nuts’ to peanut butter, I remember the brilliant man – and his mom – who put it there.

Ursula Maxwell-Lewis is a life-long traveller, and a retired Black Press editor and photographer.

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