Marian Evans, American Renaissance, April 1994
The discovery and promotion of black “role models” is now an important industry. It lifts long-dead cowboys, inventors, and ship captains from obscurity and presents them as significant figures ignored by racist white society. It accounts for why so many unknown blacks suddenly appear on postage stamps or in black-history-month displays.
George Washington Carver is very much the reverse. He was a legend in his own time, as the man who brought modern agriculture to the South and who discovered hundreds of ingenious new uses for the peanut. Along with people like Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. DuBois, he is a central figure in the history of black achievement, but his fame is absurdly out of proportion to his meager accomplishments. How did a good and engaging but unremarkable man win a reputation as a brilliant scientist long before affirmative action? His story, like that of Martin Luther King’s plagiarism, says more about white people than about the man himself.
Traded For a Horse
Carver was born in Missouri during the last years of slavery, probably in 1864. An important part of the Carver myth is the dramatic story of his abduction when he was no more than six months old. “Night riders” made off with him and his mother with the intention of selling them in the deep South. Their owner, Moses Carver, did everything within his power to get the mother and child back, but managed to have only the child returned — in exchange for a horse. Biographers would later call it “the most valuable horse in American history.”
After emancipation, his owners kept him as a foster child and did their best to educate him. Through persistence and despite hardships, Carver earned bachelors and masters degrees in agriculture, and in 1896 was hired by Booker T. Washington at the Tuskegee Institute. He spent his entire career at Tuskegee and it was there that he built his reputation as the great peanut genius.
According to the official story, Carver quickly turned the loss-making farm at the Tuskegee Experiment Station into a money-maker and set about instructing Southerners in modern agricultural methods that transformed the region. His first known involvement with peanuts was in 1903, and his first serious effort to promote their cultivation was a 1916 bulletin called How to Grow the Peanut and 105 Ways of Preparing It for Human Consumption.
According to the myth, it was Carver who, almost single-handedly, introduced crop rotation to the monoculture South and it was his substitution of peanuts for cotton that saved the region from the boll weevil. Then, appalled that he had promoted peanuts to the point of overproduction and falling prices, he rushed into the laboratory and invented hundreds of profitable new ways to use the crop. As we shall see, the truth is quite different.
Carver was, nevertheless, an enthusiastic spokesman for the peanut, and in 1920, the United Peanut Association of America invited him to address its convention. This was a calculated public relations measure by the newly-formed association. There was news value in having a black man address its convention and in Carver’s entertaining claims for 145 different, practical uses for the peanut.
The association, which was lobbying Congress for a protective tariff, then sent Carver to Washington to present the peanut to the House Ways and Means Committee. Some of the legislators treated him with amused condescension, but by showing them samples of peanut soap, peanut face cream, peanut paint and a host of other improbable products, he held their attention for nearly two hours — far longer than the 10 minutes originally allotted him. This appearance was widely reported and was an important step towards fame.
Carver became a favorite on the exhibit and lecture circuit, and his laboratory was opened to admiring visitors from all around the world. The number of peanut products continued to grow, with a final tally of something around three hundred. The wizard turned his attention to other lowly plants and reported over 150 uses for the sweet potato. He reportedly made synthetic marble from wood shavings and paint from cow dung. By the 1930s, he was the legendary “Mr. Peanut,” and admiring articles appeared about him everywhere. An early issue of Life magazine published photographs of the great man.
Carver’s death in 1943 prompted countless newspaper eulogies. President Franklin Roosevelt’s statement on the occasion — “The world of science has lost one of its most eminent figures . . .” — was typical of public pronouncements across the nation. Senator Harry Truman introduced a bill to make Carver’s birthplace a national monument. It passed without a single dissenting vote, making Carver only the third American to be so honored, along with George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. A new star had joined the American firmament.
The Real Record
What were Carver’s real achievements? The mainstays of his fame are easily unstrung. First of all, he was unable to make the Experiment Station farm profitable. He was interested in laboratory work, not administration, and had no talent for scheduling and overseeing the black students who worked the farm. His boss, Booker T. Washington, upbraided him for his failure to make the farm pay and pointed out that Carver did not even practice the sensible agricultural methods he preached to others.
Far more important is the question of his influence on peanut production. National production records show that the crop doubled from 19.5 million bushels to over 40 million bushels from 1909 to 1916, a rise that the Department of Agriculture called “one of the striking developments that have taken place in the agriculture of the South.” However, the increase took place before the publication of Carver’s first peanut tract, How to Grow . . . arid 105 Ways . . . and before he seriously promoted the crop.
During the 1920s, when Carver was enthusiastically boosting the peanut, national production actually fell. In Alabama, the state in which Carver worked, the 1917 peak was not reached again until the mid-1930s — and with little help from Macon County where Tuskegee is located. Carver himself noted sadly in 1933, that few peanuts were grown on the farms nearest to and most easily influenced by the institute. It is undoubtedly true that his peanut evangelism persuaded some to grow the crop, but his influence was by no means decisive.
What of the miraculous products Carver derived from the peanut? In 1974, the posthumously established Carver Museum at the Tuskegee Institute listed 287 peanut products, but much duplication inflates the figure. Bar candy, chocolate-coated peanuts, and peanut-chocolate fudge are listed as separate items, as are face cream, face lotion, and all-purpose cream. No fewer than 66 of the 287 products are dyes — 30 for cloth, 19 for leather and 17 for wood.
Many of the products were obviously not invented or discovered by Carver — “salted peanuts” are on the list — and the efficacy of many, including a “face bleach and tan remover” cannot be guaranteed or even tested. Astonishingly enough, Carver did not record the formulas for his products, so it is impossible to reproduce or evaluate them.
Although the popular understanding about Carver is that he launched whole industries that ran on peanuts, scarcely any of his products were ever marketed, and his commercial and scientific legacy amounts to practically nothing. He was granted only one peanut patent — for a cosmetic containing peanut oil — but this slim achievement was interpreted as pure generosity. “As each by-product was perfected,” wrote one admirer in 1932, “he gave it freely to the world, asking only that it be used for the benefit of mankind.”
Little benefit ensued because he never explained how to make the things he claimed to have discovered. In 1923, for example, Carver announced “peanut nitroglycerin” in a article called “What is a Peanut?”, published in Peanut Journal. He cheerfully reported that “This industry is practically new but shows great promise of expansion;” in fact, there was no peanut nitroglycerin industry and never would be. It is impossible to confirm if there was ever even any peanut nitroglycerin.
Other promising products were announced in articles with titles like “The Peanut’s Place in Everyday Life,” “Dawning of a New Day for the Peanut,” and “The Peanut Possesses Unbelievable Possibilities in Sickness and Health.” These possibilities remained largely as he characterized them: unbelievable.
Carver’s methods can be attributed, in part, to his gifted laboratory assistant. He recounted to many audiences how he turned to God in the despair of learning that farmers, following his advice, had produced a peanut glut:
‘Oh, Mr. Creator,’ I asked, ‘why did you make this universe?’ And the Creator answered me, ‘You want to know too much for that little mind of yours,’ He said.
So I said, ‘Dear Mr. Creator, tell me what man was made for.’
Again He spoke to me: ‘Little man, you are still asking for more than you can handle. Cut down the extent of your request and improve the intent.’
And then I asked my last question. ‘Mr. Creator, why did You make the peanut?’
‘That’s better!’ the Lord said, and He gave me a handful of peanuts and went with me back to the laboratory and, together, we got down to work.
On at least one occasion, Carver told a church audience that he never needed to consult books when he did his scientific work; he relied exclusively on divine revelation.
An Appealing Old Wizard
Upon close examination, therefore, “the Wizard of Tuskegee” resembles a different wizard of stage and movie fame. How did he become, as Reader’s Digest put it in 1965, “a scientist of undisputed genius”?
His appealing personal qualities certainly helped. He was genuinely uninterested in money, and refused to accept a pay raise during his entire 46 years at Tuskegee. When a group of Florida peanut growers sent him a check for diagnosing a peanut disease, he returned it, saying, “As the good Lord charged nothing to grow your peanuts I do not think it fitting of me to charge anything for curing them.”
He was also a black man segregationists could love. He was unmarried and celibate, apolitical, and always deferential. He really did “shuffle” and “shamble” wherever he went, and journalists enjoyed saying so.
A 1937 Reader’s Digest article written at the height of his fame begins with these words:
A stooped old Negro, carrying an armful of wild flowers, shuffled along through the dust of an Alabama road . . . I had seen hundreds like him. Totally ignorant, unable to read and write, they shamble along Southern roads in search of odd jobs. Fantastic as it seemed, this shabbily clad old man was none other than the distinguished Negro scientist of the Tuskegee Institute . . .
In 1923, the Atlanta Journal wrote happily of Carver that “He combines all the picturesque quaintness of the ante-bellum type of darkey [with] . . . the mind of an amazing scientific genius . . .”
Even after he became famous, Carver never attempted to cross the color bar, even declining invitations to eat with whites. After the death of the equally accommodating Booker T. Washington in 1915, Carver took his place as the nation’s foremost docile but achieving Negro.
There is also no doubt that Carver himself helped inflate his reputation. He did not explicitly claim to have invented all the products he spoke of, but he glossed over the difference between invention and list-making in a way that can only have been deliberate. When given an opportunity to correct exaggerated claims on his behalf, he did so in humorously humble ways that no one took seriously. On taking the podium, he might say, “I always look forward to introductions about me as good opportunities to learn a lot about myself that I never knew before.” To an author who had written of him favorably, he wrote, “How I wish I could measure up to half of the fine things this article would have me be.”
When asked for details about his inventions, he might reply, “I do dislike to talk about what little I have been able, though Divine guidance, to accomplish.” George Imes, who served for many years on the Tuskegee faculty with Carver, later wrote of his “enigmatic replies” to queries from scientists. To a writer who asked in 1936 for material on the practical applications of his discoveries, Carver replied that he simply could not keep up with them.
Of course, there always were people who knew that the reputation was a soap bubble, but they kept quiet. In 1937, the Department of Agriculture replied thus to a request for confirmation of Carver’s achievements:
Dr. Carver has without doubt done some very interesting things — things that were new to some of the people with whom he was associated, but a great many of them, if I am correctly informed, were not new to other people . . . I am unable to determine just what profitable application has been made of any of his so-called discoveries. I am writing this to you confidentially. . . and would not wish to be quoted on the subject.
In 1962, the National Park Service commissioned a study of Carver’s scientific achievements in order to best represent them at the George Washington Carver National Monument. Two professors at the University of Missouri turned in such an unflattering report that the Park Service’s letter of transmittal recommended that it not be circulated:
While Professors Carroll and Muhrer are very careful to emphasize Carver’s excellent qualities, their realistic appraisal of his ‘scientific contributions,’ which loom so large in the Carver legend, is information which must be handled very carefully . . . Our present thinking is that the report should not be published, at least in its present form, simply to avoid any possible misunderstanding.
By the 1950s, a few realistic appraisals of Carver’s career had appeared in print, and the 1953 edition of the 1700-page Webster’s Biographical Dictionary has no entry for him at all. Naturally, he has been rehabilitated in subsequent editions, and at a time when virtually any black of modest attainments is fair game as a “role model,” Carver’s chances of resting in peaceful obscurity are slim to none.
From today’s perspective, one of the most significant aspects of the Carver legend is that it grew to giant proportions in a segregated America that had never dreamed of quotas or busing and in which virtually no one believed blacks to be the intellectual equals of whites. It is instructive — and sobering — to realize that even then the affirmative action impulse was at work in the minds of whites.