Green thumb for black farmers

Way Back When

Scientist: Dr. George Washington Carver, once a sickly slave baby, revolutionized Southern agriculture.

February 05, 2000|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

When the Housing Authority of Baltimore began developing Cherry Hill in 1944, James H. Hunt of the city's Bureau of Surveys named the street after George Washington Carver, the famed agricultural chemist and agronomist.

Today, the street, which loops around two city elementary schools, commemorates the life of Carver, born into slavery and died one of the nation's foremost agricultural scientists in 1943.

"Born of slave parents, Dr. Carver, who took the name of his owners, was not sure of his birth date, but estimated it was `about 1864.' He never knew his father. While a child, he and his mother were stolen from the Diamond Grove, Mo., farm where he was born and taken to Arkansas," reported The Sun at the time of his death.

"It is fortunate for America that Moses Carver, unlike a great many slave owners, valued human life over horseflesh. Otherwise, he might not have paid as ransom a favorite thoroughbred racehorse for the nameless and sickly baby that roving bandits kidnapped from his southern Missouri plantation," observed The Sunday Sun Magazine in a 1950 article.

A determined young man, Carver worked his way through public schools and after being admitted to the University of Iowa by mail, was rejected when he arrived because he was black.

He opened a small laundry and after accumulating enough funds, entered Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa, where he paid for his education by scrubbing floors and cleaning houses. After graduating from Simpson in 1894, he entered Iowa State College where he earned a master's degree in agriculture and science in 1896.

It was Booker T. Washington, founder and president of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, who brought Carver to the school to fulfill his dream of economic emancipation for the black farmer.

Washington turned over to Carver for his work a 16-acre rutted, eroded and sandy "experimental farm" that was surrounded by farms in a similar condition.

"In a few months, though, the campus was grassy and rich in shrubbery, and the experimental farm was yielding rich crops. In a few years, so were the neighborhood farms. In the course of the next 40 years, farms all over the South were benefiting from his wizardry," said The Sunday Sun Magazine.

Carver's discoveries revolutionized Southern agriculture while adding new products to U.S. industry. He toured the South in a horse and buggy telling farmers the value of crop diversification.

From his laboratory came solutions that wiped out hundreds of plant diseases. He transformed the South by convincing farmers to plant peanuts, sweet potatoes, soybeans and pecans in addition to cotton.

From the peanut alone, he created more than 300 products that ranged from peanut butter to heavy axle grease, and from the sweet potato came a rubber substitute and plastics.

"He turned Alabama clay into paper; weeds and grass into nourishing foods," the magazine noted.

Throughout his professional life, Carver refused to take out patents and draw profits from his work and products.

A modest man who wore high-laced shoes, baggy trousers and a frayed gray sweater, Carver preferred to quietly give away his salary to help needy college students.

He is buried in Tuskegee Cemetery, not far from the grave of his mentor, Booker T. Washington.

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