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More Than Peanuts: Revisiting the work and Legacy of George Washington Carver

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More Than Peanuts: Revisiting the work and Legacy of George Washington Carver


Black History Banner.jpg

To celebrate Black History Month, OSGF is honoring the foundational work of African American individuals and communities whose contributions are integral to the history, culture, and practice of garden design, landscape architecture, and regenerative agriculture.

This watercolor drawing is part of the volume “Fruits of Malay Peninsula” and is part of the Oak Spring Garden Library collection. This volume contains 60 drawings produced circa 1840 by an unknown Indian artist working in Southeast Asia. The drawings in this volume document plants of economic value found in the Malay Peninsula.

George Washington Carver did something with peanuts. We can’t always remember exactly what, but we know it was something impressive. After all, these leguminous labors secured him a spot as one of the customary figures of Black History Month. NPR’s CodeSwitch podcast goes so far as to suggest, “Carver is, in a lot of ways, the Black History Monthiest of all of our Black History Month mainstays.” Compared to other Black History Month figureheads, like Martin Luther King Jr. and Harriet Tubman, who have distinct accomplishments that remain prevalent throughout the year, Carver’s legacy is far more elusive. His enigmatic accomplishments makes him “pretty much a February-only kind of deal” (Code Switch).

Carver’s celebrity is undoubtedly peculiar; he was a wizardly scientist whose work with peanuts launched him into the national spotlight. His celebrity is even more perplexing when we realize the popular facets of his enduring fame (Carver as eccentric inventor, as a purveyor of novel technologies and products, as the “Peanut Man!”) are largely exaggerated. Contrary to myth, Carver did not make cutting edge contributions to scientific theory nor did he develop hundreds of commercially viable products.

More recent scholarship has suggested that Carver’s accomplishments were amplified because of his accommodationist attitude and apparent utility. He “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 [....] And many whites pointed to him as proof that blacks could succeed without taking apart the system of Jim Crow” (Code Switch). There is a lot of work studying how and why Carver was cast and celebrated as an exceptional character. However, these inquiries tend to overshadow Carver’s truly exemplary work developing and teaching ecologically based agricultural techniques.

Carver’s regenerative farming methods, novel educational approaches, and unique environmental ethics are more compelling today than his Peanut Man celebrity.

Whereas this anomalous celebrity illuminates a particular zeitgeist of bygone times, his legacy of agricultural innovation is far less ahistorical. Acknowledging Carver’s remarkable work recognizes and centers African American technologies and expertise in agricultural, environmental, and community development strategies used today. Carver’s work in Tuskegee, AL and his methods of agriculture were out of step with his times, but not with the future.

The Foundation of Regenerative Agriculture as We Know It.

Some of Carver’s most appreciable work occurred during his years as a Faculty member at the Tuskegee Institute. His early teachings are fundamental to regenerative agriculture as we know it today. Carver sought to reinvigorate southern soils left degraded by years of cotton production. He developed crop rotation methods to introduce nitrogen fixing crops, like peanuts, into agriculture regimes. This helped improve soil health, while also diversifying farm products and income. To replace expensive chemical inputs, Carver advocated for amending the soil with locally available compost and swamp muck. He advocated for planting diversified crops, as both ecological insurance and a source of food. Carver strove to enable African American farmers to transform their farms into more productive and self sufficient entities as a means to alleviate poverty and debt.

Carver developed enterprising outreach methods to reach a larger portion of the population. While at the Tuskegee Institute, he conducted experiments and put on demonstrations on the campus’s farm. He hosted “Farmers Institutes” which were monthly meetings where local farmers were offered lessons and hands-on learning. Carver authored and distributed bulletins as well, which included practical advice and recipes for local farming families. One of his most well known outreach efforts was the Jessup Wagon (often spelled Jesup). The Jessup wagon was a mobile classroom that allowed for in-the-field outreach and demonstration. This outreach model proved so popular and successful it was later adopted by the USDA.

Carver’s Jessup Wagon being used to give field demonstrations. Photo is courtesy of Tuskegee University Archives and the National Archives and Records Administration.

Carver’s Jessup Wagon being used to give field demonstrations. Photo is courtesy of Tuskegee University Archives and the National Archives and Records Administration.

Though he was not an adept administrator, as the first agricultural department member at Tuskegee Institute, Carver laid the groundwork for those that followed. Serving as a member of the faculty following Carver’s generation, horticulturist Booker T. Whatley built off of Carver’s work on crop rotation and soil regeneration in his 1987 book, How To Make $100,000 Farming 25 Acres (1987). Whatley is also known for his “Clientele Membership Club” which is, in essence, what we know today as a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) and remains a staple of the sustainable food movement.

While Carver’s discoveries were not scientifically novel, the means to which he applied them were. Carver is often criticized for being apolitical, a racial accommodationist, or for failing to use his celebrity to advance a political agenda. However, many see Carver’s agricultural work as inherently political. When Carver arrived at Tuskegee, he found the political, social, and economic orders to closely resemble the plantation system. Carver taught black farmers to use natural materials as a means to ultimately rid themselves of the cycle of debt and dependence on white landowners and economic institutions. In an assessment of Tuskegee outreach efforts during Carver’s tenure, Karen Ferguson points out that any effort "to create an independent yeomanry through land ownership and self-sufficiency in a region where white prosperity depended on cotton monoculture and the subjugation of black labor" was manifestly subversive (qtd. by Hersey). As such, “[....] it is not at all surprising that Carver's campaign met with only limited success. Not only did it challenge the economic and political culture of the South, along with some significant cultural norms of the region's people-both black and white” (Hersey).

An Environmental Ethic for Today

Carver’s impressive agriculture legacy remains elusive not only because it is overshadowed by his mythical status as the Peanut Man, but also because it doesn’t fit neatly into prevailing environmental or agricultural histories. His work doesn’t fit into agricultural history because it was too environmentally minded; it doesn’t fit into environmental narratives because it was too agriculturally focused. Out of step with both the industrial agriculture and the conservation movements of the 1920’s and 30’s, Carver’s work was excluded from the historical narratives of both fields.

Carver’s work and beliefs provide a compelling narrative of ecological ethics in a region and field marginalized in environmental history. The culmination of Carver’s extensive natural knowledge, ecological education, and personal beliefs present a unique environmental ethic -- one certainly worth studying today.

Cited Work

Hersey, M. “Hints and Suggestions to Farmers: George Washington Carver and Rural Conservation in the South.” Environmental History, vol. 11, no. 2, 2006, pp. 239–268., doi:10.1093/envhis/11.2.239.

Banner Image of George Washington Carver: restored by Adam Cuerden [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons