George Washington Carver
During the 1960’s, Black Americans rediscovered their rich and varied African heritage and, in the process, developed a new racial pride. The impact on history and historians was enormous: new questions were asked, new methods utilized, and knowledge of the history of Afro-Americans was greatly expanded. Along with these developments, however, came a new presentist frame of reference that occasionally promoted a distorted view of the past, especially of the roles played by individuals. Black leaders such as Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver were sometimes removed from the context of their times, judged by 1960’s standards, and found grievously inadequate—“Uncle Toms,” in fact.
Linda O. McMurry’s excellent, readable biography of George Washington Carver goes far beyond the old dichotomy of Carver-the-great-scientist versus Carver-the-“Uncle Tom.” She treats her subject as he deserves to be considered—as a real person. Writing a good, balanced biography is never easy, and McMurry is well aware of the difficulties Carver’s life and work present. A kind of folk saint in his own lifetime, his dramatic life story, somewhat eccentric personality, and, most important, his use as a symbol for so many diverse groups make him a real challenge for any biographer. McMurry over-comes all these problems, however, for her focus is always on the real Carver—a complex, multitalented black man living in the white America of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. She has expanded her dissertation about his early career to include the entire span of his life (1865-1943), and her research is firmly grounded in archival sources, published and unpublished biographical materials, and oral histories.
Although Carver’s career has frequently been used as a kind of up-from-slavery success story, McMurry points out that this approach involves considerable distortion. Born in 1865 on the Missouri frontier, he “belonged” to a slaveowning Unionist couple who reared Carver and his brother as their own children after their mother was kidnaped by raiders. Sickly, shy, and bright, George Washington Carver early displayed a passionate interest in nature and an aptitude for “womanly skills” such as sewing, cooking, and housekeeping. Since the nondenominational church the Carvers attended was integrated, it was not until George and Jim Carver attempted to obtain formal education that they first encountered real racial barriers. When the black public school in a nearby town proved inadequate, the young George Washington Carver joined the great black migration of the 1870’s to Kansas, then moved to Minneapolis in 1880, and was homesteading on the Iowa sod house frontier by the end of the decade. There was a pattern to his life during these wanderings: at first living with black families, he later supported himself by doing odd jobs, running a laundry, and living very frugally. Whenever he could, he furthered his education at the high school level, and his relations with his white neighbors and employers were always cordial. In 1890 he was finally able to enter a small Methodist college where he excelled in both art and botany, and in 1891 he transferred to Iowa State, an institution noted for its leadership in the fields of agricultural education and research.
Although the only black student at Iowa State, George Washington Carver continued to support himself, maintain a very good academic record, and at the same time participate in the YMCA and other extracurricular activities. As a postgraduate student in botany he became interested in a new field, mycology, the study of plant diseases, and assisted in both research and teaching. After turning down an offer to join the faculty of a small black agricultural and mechanical college in Mississippi, he was finally recruited by Booker T. Washington in 1896, and agreed to join the staff at Tuskegee Institute after completing his Master’s level work. The messages preached by Booker T. Washington—self-help, interracial cooperation, and the need for qualified black faculty at institutions such as Tuskegee—were in harmony with Carver’s own views. In fact, McMurry suggests, George Washington Carver went to Tuskegee filled with missionary zeal, willing to sacrifice in order to uplift poor blacks, for he saw himself as a special, important addition to the Institute.
There were some unpleasant surprises awaiting him at Tuskegee. As the author notes, Carver had never before lived in the Deep South nor in an all-black environment. The resentment of other faculty members prevented any close social ties with them, while his relationship with Booker T. Washington could only be...
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