His reputation as “the Peanut Man” notwithstanding, George Washington Carver was very much a part of the nascent conservation movement during the Progressive Era. From the Tuskegee Institute, he sought to persuade black farmers that altering their environmental behavior could mitigate, to some extent, the economic and political vicissitudes they faced as a result of their race. His campaign on behalf of impoverished black farmers provides an instructive case study of how one strand of Progressive conservation was undone by its failure to adequately navigate the intersection of the South’s land use and social and political institutions.
GEORGE WASHINGTON CARVER remains a staple of elementary and junior high school social-studies classes, but academic historians have paid scant attention to him in recent decades. Indeed, the last time Carver excited much interest among them was during the 1970s when they debunked his reputation as a scientist and recast him as an Uncle Tom for his relative silence on racial injustice in the nation. In 1981, Linda O. McMurry rectified this depiction to a considerable extent in her excellent and balanced biography, George Washington Carver: Scientist and Symbol. With its publication, historians seemingly considered the matter closed. Most apparently agreed with David Herbert Donald’s conclusion that Carver was “no longer part of our usable past.”
Such a conclusion is short-sighted for many reasons, most especially because these critiques of Carver were directed more at the myths surrounding him than his actual achievements. The mythical Carver was “the Peanut Man,” a cultural icon that emphasized and inflated his scientific discoveries and obscured the legitimate reasons for historians to consider him. In the swirl of accolades and tributes that had accompanied his rise to fame as a “creative chemist,” much of Carver’s lasting significance had been lost.
The dearth of interest in Carver among environmental historians is particularly lamentable. Carver spent the better part of his life thinking about the interaction of people and the natural world and making contributions to the development of sustainable agricultural techniques, but environmentalists remain only vaguely aware of his environmental vision. Believing it to be “fundamental that nature will drive away those who com-mit sins against it,” Carver attempted to persuade southerners that their region’s economic salvation lay in the adoption of more sustainable agricultural methods. (Despite his depiction as an Uncle Tom figure, he in fact took subtle jabs at the Jim Crow institutions of the South when he enjoined southern farmers to “be kind to the soil,” reminding them that “unkindness to any-thing means an injustice done to that thing.”) His particular concern was the plight of impoverished black farmers in the region, and over the course of his first decades at Tuskegee Institute, he waged a campaign aimed at persuading them that they could defend themselves against the economic and political vicissitudes they faced as a result of their race by turning to the natural environment. Consequently, Carver offers a unique lens through which historians can catch a glimpse of Progressive-era efforts to navigate the intersection of land use, race, and poverty in the rural South as part of the larger conservation movement.
Figure 1. George Washington Carver.
Courtesy Kansas State Historical Society.
Carver, pictured here ca. the late 1930s, is best remembered as “the Peanut Man,” a mythical figure whose scientific accomplishments were exaggerated. For this reason, historians have paid scant attention to him in recent years, but he merits their continued attention for his nuanced and farsighted environmental vision.
Though southern environmental history has grown by leaps and bounds in the last decade, comparatively little attention has been paid to regionally distinct manifestations of Progressive conservation. In part, of course, this is because historians have looked for unifying themes, such as the wider Progressive impulse to entrust decision-making to experts. In part, this also may be because certain highly emphasized themes, such as the preservation-conservation dichotomy, make so little sense in the region; there were few swaths of what early-twentieth century conservationists would have recognized as “wilderness” in the South. Doubtless, it is also due to a de-emphasis of the agricultural wing of the conservation movement, perhaps because it lost a struggle within the community of scientific agriculturists for ascendancy. To be sure, few today associate scientific agriculture with environmentalist impulses. Whatever the reasons, Carver’s campaign on behalf of impoverished black farmers offers an instructive case study of how one strand of the nascent conservation movement played out in the region.
As might be expected, understanding Carver’s campaign requires a little background on Carver himself. Born a slave in Missouri at the close of the Civil War and orphaned at a young age, he was adopted by his former owners. Though his foster parents provided a loving environment in Carver’s formative years, the opportunities for education were limited in Missouri for African Americans, and so in his early teens, Carver set off in search of an education. This search led him into Kansas, where he bounced around from town to town before graduating from high school in the central Kansas village of Minneapolis. Initially accepted to Highland College in the northeast corner of the state, Carver was turned away by the school when it discovered he was black, and for a time it looked as though Carver’s formal education was over. In 1886, he headed to western Kansas to begin a life as a homesteader. The late 1880s, however, were rough years on the western plains, marked by blizzards and drought. So in 1888 he borrowed sufficient funds to secure the title to his land and shortly thereafter abandoned his sod house and headed back across Kansas to Iowa.
Through a series of fortuitous relationships, Carver wound up at the Iowa Agricultural College (now Iowa State University) in the early 1890s, just as the era of scientific agriculture was coming into its own. When Carver arrived, the school was on the brink of establishing itself as one of the leading agricultural colleges in the nation. Though Seaman A. Knapp and Charles Bessey (notable leaders in agricultural reform and science respectively) had left the school before his arrival, Carver would sit under the instruction of two future secretaries of agriculture, James Wilson and Henry C. Wallace, as well as one of the best-known horticulturists of the day, Joseph Lancaster Budd.
Although Carver developed close relationships with Wilson, Wallace, and Budd, it was his primary adviser, Louis H. Pammel, who most influenced his thinking. Indeed, in later years, Carver would write that he “owed a deeper debt of gratitude” to Pammel for his success “than anyone else.” A botanist of some note, Pammel had been trained first at the University of Wisconsin and then under a “who’s who” of eminent botanists: William Farlow and Asa Gray at Harvard and William Trelease at the Shaw School of Botany in St. Louis. Pammel is not as well known as Bessey, Frederick Clements, Henry C. Cowles, Roscoe Pound, Victor Shelford, Paul Sears, and a host of others who laid the groundwork for the modern science of ecology. However, he was part of this larger movement, which, as Donald Worster has pointed out, had its vital center in midwestern universities at the time. To be sure, in 1896, only three years after “ecology” had been agreed upon as the formal spelling of the term and two decades before the formation of the Ecological Society of America, Pammel published a book titled Flower Ecology, and in 1903 he published a textbook simply titled Ecology. The foundational principles of ecology, as Pammel presented them, resonated with Carver, who had been a keen observer of the natural world since his childhood in Missouri and whose religious sensibilities led him to see in nature the hand of a beneficent Creator. After he left Iowa State, he habitually emphasized the need for farmers to appreciate the “organic unity” of the world they worked.
By 1896, Carver was wrapping up his master’s degree in agricultural science, having impressed some of the leading lights of the field. At the same time, Booker T. Washington, who was trying to staff Tuskegee Institute with an all-black faculty (and who a year earlier had burst on the national scene with his Atlanta Exposition Address), was despairing of finding an African American candidate qualified to head the institute’s new agricultural school. When Washington heard of Carver, he offered him the position immediately, imploring him to accept so that Tuskegee would not be “forced… to put in a white man.” After some vacillation, Carver accepted the charge and after finishing his degree left the Midwest for the first time in his life.
Though Carver had certainly encountered racism in the predominantly white states of Missouri, Kansas, and Iowa, his experience had not been uniformly bad. He had been befriended and assisted by numerous whites, from his foster parents to his neighbors in western Kansas to his advisers and fellow students at Iowa State. Consequently, his own experience—and his advanced degree—had confirmed for him the wisdom of Washington’s philosophy of self-help and interracial cooperation. Furthermore, his time in Iowa had influenced more than his scientific training. The political climate of the state, which flirted with Populism but never embraced it, confirmed his appreciation of agrarian ideals but also his distrust of political radicalism. His belief that reform could be accomplished through non-threatening channels would prove, perhaps, naïve when it encountered the depth and complexity of the problems facing black farmers in the Deep South. Nonetheless, imbued with a missionary zeal born of a conviction that God had chosen him for some high purpose, he seized the chance to help “his people.”
The Black Belt of Alabama was, as Carver wrote Pammel a few months after his arrival in October 1896, “indeed a new world to Iowa.” Gone were “the golden wheat fields and tall green corn of Iowa.” In their stead, Carver recalled, were “acres of cotton, nothing but cotton… stunted cattle [and] boney mules.” There, surrounded by “devastated forests, ruined estates, and a thoroughly discouraged people, many just eking out a miserable sort of existence from the furrowed and guttered hillsides and neglected valleys called farms,” Carver found himself “in a strange land and among a strange people.”
Socially and ecologically, Macon County, Alabama, looked much like the rest of the state’s Black Belt when Carver arrived at Tuskegee, its county seat. The county had been opened to white settlement in 1837 with the removal of its indigenous Creek inhabitants. For a few brief years, yeomen farmers predominated, but by the end of the 1840s, planters had consolidated their hold over the county’s land and political power. As white settlers and their slaves felled increasing numbers of trees and laid the soil open with plows, erosion increased apace. The few voices advocating caution and responsible cultivation were largely ignored; it was simply more profitable to clear a new patch of land than it was to manure fields, rotate crops, and terrace hillsides.
In the wake of the Civil War, the county’s reliance on cotton was heightened. It was incentive enough that money was scarce and cotton the only proven cash crop in the region. The emergence of tenancy and sharecropping, which generally permitted landlords the right to dictate crop mixes to their tenants, further institutionalized this dependence. The same could be said of the proliferation of commercial fertilizers in the late 1860s, which, because they increased yields, negated to some extent the detrimental effects of the misuse of the land. Though organic fertilizers like guano continued to be used, new chemical fertilizers became increasingly commonplace. By the 1880s, they had become so widespread that Alabama began to employ a state chemist, whose responsibility it was “to analyze free of cost to the planter and farmer any specimen of fertilizer which he may suspect to be fraudulent.” In fact, the proliferation of commercial fertilizers played no small role in the establishment of the state’s Department of Agriculture in 1883. Not only was the department responsible for regulating fertilizers, it was charged with “promoting their extension and use.” To listen to Alabama’s leading agriculturists in the 1880s, a quick fix for bad soil chemistry was all that mattered. The “manufacture of scientifically prepared fertilizers and their application to the soil,” the state chemist informed his listeners at the State Agricultural Convention in 1888, “is the best means of estimating the progress a country is making in agriculture.” Alabama’s agriculturists, like those of other southern states, were pursuing, in essence, an early technological fix.
These new fertilizers, however, worsened an already bleak financial system for the region’s growing number of tenant farmers. In many cases, the promise of greater yields enticed sharecroppers and other tenants to purchase substantial quantities of costly fertilizer—at least when their creditors would advance them the funds to do so—perpetuating and worsening their cycle of debt. As often as not, the cost of the fertilizer outweighed the profits of increased production. The generally accepted truism that the region’s exploitative labor relations resulted in exploitative agricultural practices has not been thoroughly tested. (Southern historians often talk about the soil, but seldom read the available scientific literature about it—a shortcoming environmental historians will doubtless rectify as they increasingly turn their attention to the region.) Even so, it is clear that the region’s agricultural practices continued to degrade the environment.
When Carver arrived in Macon County, he certainly encountered a severely denuded landscape—one very different from Iowa, where fertile, loess soils supported more profitable farming and tenancy was considered a mark of failure. In much of the state, Carver ruefully noted, the Alabama soil amounted to “practically a pile of sand and clay, making a yield far below the cost of production” and rewarding many of those who worked it with “another mortgage … as an unpleasant reminder of the year’s hard labor.” As in much of the Deep South, farmers in the immediate vicinity of Tuskegee planted little but cotton (oftentimes right up to the doors of their houses) in nutritionally depleted soils.
Frequent heavy rains worsened the condition of the exhausted soil. When William Bartram passed through the county in the 1770s, he noted “the violence of an extraordinary shower of rain, which suddenly came down in such floods as to inundate the earth,” forcing his entire party to remain on its “feet the whole night, for the surface of the ground was underwater almost till morning.” The downpour Bartram witnessed was hardly exceptional. Storms of a similar nature were common in the area and contributed to what was arguably the region’s greatest agricultural problem: soil erosion. With the trees removed and the soil laid open to the rain and seldom cultivated deeply enough to absorb much water, large amounts of humus were carried away by the very rain needed to sustain the crops. “Where the land is rolling (and most of it is),” Carver wrote of Macon County, “it washes badly… leaving great ditches, gutters, and bald places.”
In the six decades between the removal of the Creeks and Carver’s arrival in the county, the “savannahs, groves, cane swamps and open pine forests” encountered by Bartram had been transformed into what Carver described as “barren and furrowed hillsides and wasted valleys.” Since the depleted fields of Macon County’s working landscape were in large measure a relic of the plantation system, its agro-ecosystems along with those of the rest of Alabama’s Black Belt, perhaps more obviously than in most places, bore the marks of political and social relationships. Any attempt to rectify their ecological problems, then, necessarily entailed a delicate navigation of the region’s social and political institutions. Predictably enough, this fact complicated and ultimately undermined Carver’s reform efforts.
Early on, however, Carver was exceedingly optimistic in his ability to remedy the situation. He arrived convinced that in a few short years he could teach “his people” in the South to become economically independent and productive farmers. He viewed himself as a sort of temporary missionary to the poor blacks of the South. After rectifying the situation for southern black farmers, he intended to give up his position at Tuskegee and return to his first love—painting. In a letter to the institute’s Finance Committee a month after his arrival requesting more spacious living quarters, he took pains to point out that he had come to Tuskegee “for the benefit of my people, no other motive in view” and that he expected to “quit as soon as I can trust my work to others, and engage in my brush work,” which, he added with characteristic hubris, “will be of great honor to our people showing to what we may attain.”
If Carver’s optimism manifested itself as pride (and it often did), his confidence was not in his own ability per se. Deeply religious, Carver credited God for his talents and was convinced that the Creator had ordained a divine plan for his life, one that would enable him to enlighten benighted ex-slaves and their children before moving on to even greater things. Though he could not save the South on his own, with God behind him nothing would prove impossible. In light of such an optimism, it is hardly surprising that Carver’s first years at Tuskegee proved disillusioning. That same conviction, however, lent a missionary zeal to his work, particularly the work aimed at improving the condition of impoverished southern farmers. By preaching the gospel of scientific agriculture, albeit modified so that it could be employed by those “fartherest down,” he sought to persuade black farmers that they could grasp the abundance of the South’s natural environment and thereby could achieve economic independence.
Underlying all of Carver’s efforts to this end was his firmly held belief that black farmers in the South (and for that matter southerners generally) failed to apprehend the richness of the natural world around them. “It is a source of regret,” Carver lamented, “that we do not recognize and appreciate what Nature has so lavishly provided for us.” For those who had eyes to see, he believed, the Great Creator (his favorite title for God) had provided everything that any of His children needed to live, indeed to prosper, in the abundance of the natural environment itself. “Few, if any,” Carver asserted in an article aimed at encouraging local farmers to attend the annual Macon County Fair, “realize the wealth within our county and the ease with which we can, not only live, but accumulate much above a living.” For Carver, what was a weed to one man was a delicious vegetable to someone who appreciated the Creator’s munificence; what was merely swamp muck to the former was fertilizer and a soil renovator to the latter. Quoting Psalm 121, Carver insisted that the first thing a poor farmer needed to do in order to become economically independent was to “lift up [his] eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh [his] help.”
Simply by recognizing and taking advantage of God’s beneficence in the natural world (along with the processes by which He made it operate), black farmers could forgo costly fertilizers, spare themselves the expense of store-bought food, and ultimately free themselves from an endless cycle of dependence and debt. During the first two decades or so of his tenure at Tuskegee, Carver’s primary aim was to open the eyes of black farmers in order to reveal to them the promise of the natural world and to show them how to best take advantage of it.
Carver’s efforts to this end began in the classes he taught at the institute. As Linda McMurry has pointed out, whether “his course was labeled botany, chemistry or agriculture, what he taught was an appreciation of the miracles and beauties of nature.” Through his classes, which emphasized the ways in which an understanding of natural processes aided agriculture, he conveyed to his students a religious reverence for the complexity and interrelatedness of the natural world. Though the science of ecology was barely in its infancy, Carver emphasized the “organic unity” of the universe, and taught all of his varied subjects in terms of “relationships.” Thus he would take a plant, a fungus, an animal, an insect or a mineral, and explain how the Creator had arranged the natural forces that produced it. By using such a method he could link any number of fields that might ordinarily be taught separately: biology, chemistry, agriculture, meteorology, botany, mycology, geology, entomology, and even literature. Education, to Carver, properly consisted of understanding such relationships.
Carver’s innovative teaching methods and enthusiasm for his subjects proved inspirational to his students. Many, for example, took him up on his challenge to collect and identify various specimens. This sort of hands-on learning was related to the trend popular throughout the country at the turn of the century, though especially applied to rural, elementary school-age children, of integrating “Nature Study” into the formal education of students. At the request of Liberty Hyde Bailey, a Cornell horticulturist and leader in that movement and in the wider agricultural reform efforts of the early twentieth century, Carver served on the editorial board of the national journal, The Nature-Study Review. Not surprisingly, Carver published bulletins from Tuskegee devoted to Nature Study and issued “Farmers’ Leaflets” from the institute’s aptly named “Bureau of Nature Study for Schools and Hints and Suggestions to Farmers.” His pedagogy so impressed Booker T. Washington that Tuskegee’s president asked him to lead seminars for his fellow faculty members on how they might improve their teaching.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Carver encountered some resistance: most of the young black students who enrolled in Tuskegee dreamed of escaping their parents’ farms, not of returning to them. Upon first arriving at Tuskegee, for instance, Thomas M. Campbell—an early student of Carver’s who in 1906 became the United States Department of Agriculture’s first black demonstration agent—told the institute’s registrar that he had no interest in farming. “He then asked me,” Campbell related, “if I would like to take agriculture. I said I thought I would like that very well…. Imagine my surprise when I learned that agriculture was farming.” Perhaps more tellingly, at institutional assemblies where Washington would ask the students enrolled in agriculture to stand, Campbell confessed that he “was among those who did not like to stand and did not do so until I had overcome some of my prejudices against country life.” In light of the distaste most students at Tuskegee held for agriculture, it is hardly surprising that teachers in other departments would punish misbehavior by “sentencing” students to work on the school’s farm. Nor is it surprising that enrollments in the agricultural department were never as high as Washington hoped.
Despite relatively low student enrollments in the agricultural department, Carver’s teaching bore a good bit of fruit. During the years Carver was at Tuskegee, as historian Allen W. Jones has pointed out, the institute “educated [and] trained … the South’s most significant black agricultural leaders.” Many of the department’s more anonymous graduates wound up teaching elsewhere and passing along lessons they had garnered from Carver. Moreover, not everyone Carver taught at the institute was officially enrolled as a student there. In large measure this was because Carver took the idea of monthly “Farmers’ Institutes” with him to Tuskegee from Iowa State. Consequently, beginning in November 1897, Tuskegee began hosting local farmers once a month in order to offer them practical—often hands-on—lessons in subjects such as “when and how cotton land should be prepared,” “gardening for profit,” and “how to recognize and destroy destructive insects.” Similarly, toward the close of 1903 Carver suggested holding a series of lectures for local farmers during the winter months when farm duties were relatively light. Institute officials agreed, and in January 1904 a six-week “Short Course in Agriculture” was launched. It became an annual event, though subsequently shortened to two weeks, and by 1912 more than fifteen hundred farmers were enrolled. Even so, the number of students who sat in his classes was negligible, at least compared to the number of poor black farmers in the South.
More were doubtless influenced by Carver’s public appearances, which constituted the second avenue through which he sought to open the eyes of poor black farmers to the possibilities presented by an environment they took for granted. Perhaps the best known of these were his regular appearances at the institute’s annual Negro Farmers’ Conference. The first such conference, held on February 23, 1892, predated Carver’s arrival at Tuskegee. On that day, about four hundred African American men, most of whom were farmers (only twenty-three of whom owned their own homes), attended the event, discussing their problems in open forums. The resulting resolutions, adopted at the close of the conference, were a mixed bag. One amounted to wishful thinking: “To abolish and do away with the mortgage system just as rapidly as possible”; and one (anticipating a portion of Carver’s message) acknowledged the necessity of increased economic independence by admitting the need to “raise our own food supplies… at home rather than go in debt for them at stores.” The bulk of the remaining resolutions might have been written by the middle-class whites of Tuskegee, and included doing away with drinking, gambling, “and disgracing ourselves in many other ways,” hiring only “moral men” as pastors, and making sure black women behaved demurely (speaking “in a quiet tone of voice” in public and never wearing “their hair wrapped in strings”).
The conference’s success in attracting black farmers convinced Booker T. Washington to make it an annual event, one that was imitated by other black land-grant institutions and that was growing in popularity at the time of Carver’s arrival. With Carver’s involvement, however, conference activities increased and attendance quickly doubled. A number of reasons explain this increased popularity, and Carver is not due credit for them all. Tuskegee, for instance, was a social center for African Americans from Macon and surrounding counties. When, in the first decade of the twentieth century, Ned Cobb, a black farmer from neighboring Tallapoosa County, was courting the woman who would become his wife, she asked him to take her to Tuskegee’s commencement. “People from every whichaway,” Cobb recalled, “come that day to Tuskegee Normal School, colored school, commencement. Crowd so thick you couldn’t squeeze between em.” Other events, including the Farmers’ Conference, had a certain social appeal as well.
That said, much of the credit for the conference’s increased attendance still can be attributed to Carver for two principal reasons. First, his cultivation of the experiment station allowed conference guests to see a concrete example of what could be done with relatively little capital, providing an incentive to adhere to the suggestions of conference speakers like Carver. The second, and perhaps more important, reason was Carver’s friendship with James Wilson, who had been one of his professors in Ames and who served as secretary of agriculture under presidents William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, and William Howard Taft. Through his connection with Wilson, Carver was able to procure seeds from the USDA that could be distributed to conference attendees, giving them greater means to achieve some of the resolutions adopted each year, such as diversifying their crops.
Carver’s participation in the annual conference represented only a small fraction of his public appearances. He also arranged displays and spoke at the Farmers’ Institute annual fair. First held in 1898, the Tuskegee fair was more or less conventional in featuring agricultural exhibits, demonstrations, and talks. After 1911, the Farmers’ Institute fair was combined with the white county fair into a single Macon County Fair that was attended annually by thousands. And his public appearances in Macon County were far outstripped by engagements beyond its borders.
Even before the end of his first decade in Alabama, Carver’s public lectures had won widespread praise. Consequently, he often was invited to speak at various functions throughout the South. Though he regularly spoke at teachers’ association meetings, attempting to persuade educators to increase their focus on agriculture, most of his public presentations were part of “farmers’ conferences,” “farmers’ institutes,” “country meetings,” and county fairs. Promoters of the gatherings generally advertised his appearance as a main attraction and invited farmers to bring soil and plant samples for him to analyze. After speaking on topics such as the need for scientific agriculture, agricultural diversification, farm economics, and self-sufficiency, Carver would take questions from those in attendance.
At a typical conference, held in 1899 at Hampton College in Virginia, Carver acknowledged the bleak financial situation facing black farmers in the South, noting that the “average southern farm has little more to offer than about thirty-seven percent of a cotton crop selling at four and half cents a pound and costing five and six to produce.” However, he added that “we have a perfect foundation for an ideal country [including] natural advantages of which we may justly feel proud.” What was holding poor farmers back, he contended, was their ignorance of ecological relationships, or as he put it, the “mutual relationship of the animal, mineral and vegetable kingdoms, and how utterly impossible it is for one to exist in a highly organized state without the other.” Thus, the problem, as he saw it, was a lack of agricultural education (and a failure on the farmers’ part to apply those things they had already learned through events such as the one at which he was speaking). Of course, he did offer some “practical” suggestions, most of which (in this particular case) had to do with increasing, “both in quantity and quality, all of our farm animals.” “We should… sacrifice,” he suggested, “a goodly number of the worthless puppies that are in evidence in too many dooryards, and put two or three sheep in their places.” His seemingly hardheaded economic advice notwithstanding, it was through his engagements as a traveling speaker that Carver’s reputation began to grow among both blacks and whites in the South.
Carver’s work at the institute’s experiment station and publications documenting the success of his endeavors there constituted the third major way in which he sought to reveal to poor black farmers the munificence of the natural world around them. Early on, however, Carver’s desire to be of service to “his people” occasionally conflicted with his aspiration to continue as a serious scientist. Consequently, after publishing a bulletin on the nutritional value of acorns—”which have been hitherto practically a waste product”—for feeding livestock, he published three consecutive bulletins on experiments that were beyond the utility of most poor farmers. Two relied on significant amounts of commercial fertilizer (as much as $95 worth per acre); the other was titled “Some Cercosporae of Macon Co., Alabama” and came complete with footnotes referencing the Journal of Mycology and other academic vehicles.
Figure 2. Advertisement for a “Farmers’ Picnic,” 1905.
Courtesy of the Tuskegee University Archive.
By the end of his first decade in Alabama, Carver’s services as a speaker were in high demand at agricultural events throughout the South. Promoters of such gatherings—as in the case above—generally advertised his appearance as a main attraction and invited farmers to bring soil and plant samples for him to analyze.
As fate would have it, by the early 1900s financial exigencies obliterated his opportunity to conduct much in the way of conventional scientific experiments. Federal funding for the station was funneled through the state, which predictably allocated the vast majority of the funds to the white-run experiment station at Auburn. Had it not been for Carver’s connection with James Wilson, things might have been even worse for the Tuskegee experiment station, which at its inception in 1897 received one-tenth the annual funding allocated its counterpart at Auburn and by 1912 received but one-fiftieth of the same. Despite Wilson’s helping to arrange for seed and other essentials, Tuskegee’s experiment station was forced to do with very little. After 1905, for example, the only fertilizer the Tuskegee station used was composted swamp muck, manure and other organic waste. This meager financial support for the station, however, proved in the end to be a blessing of sorts, since it compelled Carver to conduct experiments with the kinds of materials available to impoverished black farmers.
Consequently, most of the Tuskegee station’s bulletins tended to offer more practical advice for poor farmers than similar publications issued by other stations. By the time Carver published the station’s sixth bulletin in April 1905—titled “How to Build Up Worn Out Soils”—he could rightly assert, “The Tuskegee station has… [kept] in mind the poor tenant farmer with a one-horse equipment; so therefore, every operation performed has been within his reach.” Over the next fifteen or so years, the institute issued roughly twenty-five more bulletins, all but four of which were written by Carver. The bulletins covered practical topics such as: “Growing Cotton on Sandy Soil,” “Successful Yields of Small Grains,” “Saving the Sweet Potato Crop,” “Saving the Wild Plum Crop,” “How to Cook Cowpeas,” “How to Make Cotton Growing Pay,” “The Pickling and Curing of Meat in Hot Weather,” “When, What, and How to Can and Preserve Fruits and Vegetables in the Home,” “How to Grow the Tomato and 115 Ways to Prepare It for the Table,” “Twelve Ways to Meet the New Economic Conditions Here in the South” (a question-and-answer format dealing with the arrival of the boll weevil), and most famously, “How to Grow the Peanut and 105 Ways of Preparing It for Human Consumption.”
Despite a superficial similarity in subject matter to the bulletins of other agricultural experiment stations and colleges, Carver’s bulletins were distinctive in some notable ways. To begin with, virtually all of his bulletins were written with “but few technical terms,” and were directed to “the average farmer.” They were perhaps more unique, however, in that Carver did not write them with the primary aim of increasing production—a national obsession in the first decades of the twentieth century born of rising food and fiber prices that stressed the nation’s increasingly urban-industrial economy. Most historians have seen Progressive reform in agriculture as an effort to streamline agricultural production in order to transform farmers into efficient complements to the nation’s industrial sector. There is good reason for their doing so, but Progressive agricultural reform was riven with internal divisions, and the well-being of the farmers themselves was not just an afterthought to many in the movement. Reformers like Carver, Liberty Hyde Bailey, and Kenyon L. Butterfield were not insincere in their praise of agrarian values, nor were they merely sentimentalists concerned with a nostalgic return to the simplicity of rural life. They genuinely believed that scientific agriculture held the promise of a better life for rural Americans.
Even within the agrarian wing of the agricultural reform movement, however, there were divisions. One obvious divide came along racial lines. Bailey, for instance, was obliged to write Carver in order to discover “the names of influential Negroes who have developed a leadership in country life aside from those at Tuskegee.” But most agrarians agreed that farmers’ participation in the nation’s expanding agricultural markets would ultimately be of great benefit to them. In this respect, the agrarians found themselves in lockstep with those more concerned with increased agricultural production. To be sure, a smaller number of agrarians had little interest in national markets. Probably the best known of these were the supporters of the short-lived Back-to-the-Land Movement, which was rooted in Malthusian concerns and advocated that urbanites return to rural areas in order to scientifically cultivate small farms. Carver’s concern with impoverished black farmers left him in a position where he had no choice but to deal with national markets, but it also pushed him to find ways for those farmers to become self sufficient in order to extricate themselves from the vagaries of the cotton market.
Reflecting his hope that expanding agricultural markets held at least some promise for black farmers, Carver held that “he who puts such a product upon the market as it demands, controls that market, regardless of color.” But he also believed that increasing production without making “consumption… commensurate with it” amounted to “a bad case of agricultural economics.” Consequently, rather than convincing black farmers that they should become efficient agriculturists in an increasingly interdependent industrial age, Carver sought to persuade them to become more economically independent, to decrease their reliance on mass-manufactured goods, and to use their fields to provide food for their own tables rather than fiber for the nation’s textile mills. The progressive farmer, according to Carver, was not the one who produced the most cotton, used the most modern equipment, or applied the best commercial fertilizers, but the one who recognized the truth of the adage that waste does not exist, except in ignorance.
Indeed, along with a religious reverence for the “organic unity” of the natural world, the heart of Carver’s conservation ethic rested in his conviction that waste is anathema—a conviction that was rooted to a large degree in his understanding of ecological principles. Looking at the larger society of the South—and the nation—Carver concluded: “As a rule we are wasteful; we do not know how to save.” For Carver, agriculture could be properly conducted (and, for that matter, natural resources could be wisely consumed) only with an abhorrence of waste. Thus, as farmers became aware of how the Creator had arranged the “mutual relationship of the animal, mineral and vegetable kingdoms,” they could not help but recognize ways to make use of materials they had previously discarded or overlooked: swamp muck would become fertilizer, the region’s clays dyes for whitewash and paint; cow pea vines might become animal fodder and tomato vines serve as a source of dyes for fabric; weeds would become vegetables, and corn shucks, rugs. In a bulletin titled “Some Ornamental Plants of Macon County, Ala.,” Carver described and laid out where to find (and how to care for) wild trees, shrubs, vines, ferns, grasses, and flowers. Even “rare beauty and fragrance” were available at a cost only of labor for those who eschewed waste and appreciated creation. Carver, then, advocated a way of thinking as much as a specific regimen. “These are only a few of the many ways of becoming thrifty and self-supporting,” Carver concluded a bulletin titled “How to Make and Save Money on the Farm.” “Begin at once to put some of them into effect; others I am sure will suggest themselves to you.”
The experiment station bulletins, of course, did not represent the entirety of Carver’s published work. Under the auspices of the institute’s Bureau of Nature Study for Schools and Hints and Suggestions to Farmers, Carver issued a number of leaflets that addressed issues facing black farmers. Predictably, these offered practical suggestions for farmers and echoed his calls for scientific agriculture. One, for instance, offered advice on “How to Live Comfortably this Winter,” another on “Being Kind to the Soil.” Yet another, titled “Some Choice Wild Vegetables that Make Fine Foods,” might well have been written by a modern ethno-botanist. “Nature has provided us with an almost innumerable variety of wild vegetables,” the leaflet began, “which serve not only as food, but as medicine.” For a brief while Carver answered questions submitted by local farmers in an institute publication with an extensive local circulation. He also wrote fairly regularly for regional newspapers, often pointing to the successes of Tuskegee’s experiment station and encouraging intelligent cultivation and the use of neglected but readily available materials.
Regardless of the nature of the publication, for the most part Carver espoused practicable, environmentally sound ideas. Farmers, no matter how poor, could eschew the “lazy way of improving, not the fertility of their land, but the yield of the current season’s crop, by the application of inferior ready mixed commercial fertilizers.” Instead, they could build up the humus by plowing the remnants of harvested crops back into the land and by working manure from their animals and composted vegetable matter into the soil. In theory, at least, they could rotate nitrogen-fixing leguminous plants, including peanuts and cowpeas, with cotton and corn. Likewise, maintaining vegetable gardens, raising such livestock as might be practical (whether chickens, hogs, or cows), plowing crosswise to hills rather than straight up and down them, and gathering some of the “many hundred bushels of [wild] plums that go to waste every year” hardly seem economically impractical or ecologically unsound.
The chief shortcoming of his publications was found in the fact that although Carver deliberately wrote in a simple language with “but few technical terms,” widespread illiteracy among black farmers ensured that his publications would reach only a certain number of them. That is not to say there was not a market for Carver’s bulletins. In fact, the two thousand to five thousand copies printed for each issue were rapidly snatched up, and many certainly wound up in the hands of literate black farmers. But many of them also wound up in the hands of planters, academics, and journalists. In light of this, it is hardly surprising that whites as well as blacks often would write to Carver for advice. After reading one of Carver’s leaflets, a South Carolina planter, for instance, wrote the Tuskegee scientist seeking advice as to how he might teach his black tenants “to make a success of poultry raising.”
Figure 3. Tuskegee Agricultural Experiment Station Bulletin No. 33.
Courtesy of the Tuskegee University Archive.
Carver’s bulletins offered farmers advice on how they might extricate themselves from the vagaries of the cotton market. The bulletin above dealt with the arrival of the boll weevil.
For his part, Carver was aware of the educational shortcomings facing poor farmers, particularly black ones, in the South. In fact, widespread illiteracy among African Americans in the South was at least partly responsible for the development of an extension program for his department. Although it differed from the other avenues he pursued in that he eventually entrusted it to others, the institute’s extension program came to constitute the fourth primary manner in which he sought to persuade black farmers to transform their relationship with the land.
Prior to Carver’s arrival, Booker T. Washington had long taken trips out into the country surrounding Tuskegee ostensibly to recruit students and to get, as Thomas M. Campbell pointed out, “first hand information as to [rural African Americans’] needs in order that those needs could be taken into consideration in the planning of courses of study beneficial not alone to the students but to the families from whence they came.” As was the case with much of what he did, Washington’s motives were mixed. On the one hand, he sought to make the courses offered at Tuskegee relevant to the community’s needs and to improve the material conditions of rural blacks, especially those in Macon County. Under his direction the institute provided black-controlled banking services to local farmers, proved eager to purchase their garden vegetables, loaned its stud animals to them to help increase their livestock, and even purchased land with the intent of selling it cheaply to black farmers. On the other hand, he was deeply concerned that the squalor in which impoverished black farmers generally lived reflected badly both on the race and his school. Thus he was prone to putting perhaps an excessive emphasis on superficial, external improvements. When in 1914 he took what would be his last tour of rural Macon County “he insisted that the houses along the roads traveled by the ‘Washington Party’ be whitewashed, the yards cleaned, and fences repaired in advance of their coming.” Nearly two decades later, sociologist Charles S. Johnson noticed “a group of cabins [that] had been whitewashed eighteen years before in anticipation of a visit from Booker T. Washington. That was the last coating,” Johnson poignantly added, “they had had.” Whitewashing, indeed. Be that as it may, Washington encouraged his teachers to make similar excursions into surrounding rural communities, and for roughly a decade after his arrival at the institute, Carver did so.
“In those early years,” Campbell recalled, “it was Dr. Carver’s custom, in addition to his regular work, to put a few tools and demonstration exhibits in a buggy and set out … on Saturday afternoons, to visit rural areas near Tuskegee. There, during the weekends, he would give practical demonstrations, both varied and seasonal.” Like those who succeeded him as Tuskegee’s agricultural emissaries, he targeted Sunday church services as well, which afforded him the opportunity to add his gospel of scientific agriculture to the messages preached that day.
Figure 4. The Jesup Wagon at Work, n.d.
Courtesy of the Tuskegee University Archive.
The institutionalization of Tuskegee’s extension service began with the launch of the Jesup Wagon in the spring of 1906. Designed and outfitted by Carver, the Jesup Wagon was incorporated into the USDA’s extension service in November of that year under the charge of Thomas Campbell, a former student of Carver’s. From Thomas M. Campbell, “The Moveable School Goes to the Negro Farmer” (Tuskegee, Ala.: Tuskegee Institute Press, 1936).
In 1904, Washington suggested to Carver that a more formal agricultural outreach program be initiated. Believing the idea to be “most excellent,” Carver submitted a proposal for a wagon outfitted with all sorts of demonstration exhibits and equipment. Washington then found a northern philanthropist, Morris K. Jesup, who was willing to fund the project, and in the spring of 1906, the Jesup Agricultural Wagon was formally commissioned under the charge of George Bridgeforth, one of Carver’s assistants. Though its range was limited (twelve miles was considered a long trip), the Jesup Wagon facilitated extension work by enabling staff members of the agricultural department to carry out “countryside demonstrations of the implements and techniques developed at Carver’s agricultural experiment station and elsewhere.” Over the course of that first summer, the newly commissioned wagon reached some two thousand farmers a month in Macon and surrounding counties.
That same summer Seaman Knapp, a former president of Iowa State, visited Tuskegee. Knapp, whose pioneering extension work as part of the effort to combat the boll weevil in Texas had won for him a position in the USDA as head of its fledgling demonstration program, thought enough of the Jesup Wagon to recommend its adoption by the federal government. Consequently, in November 1906, upon the recommendation of both Carver and Bridgeforth, Thomas Campbell took charge of the wagon and was commissioned as the nation’s first black demonstration agent.
In a letter to James Wilson in August 1904, Carver had noted that “although elsewhere [he could] do very much better financially… and also not have such hard work,” he would not think of trusting it to others until he “got Tuskegee’s work on a firm and solid basis.” After 1906, however, with the demand for his services as a speaker rapidly increasing and a series of crises to attend to in the agricultural department, Carver essentially trusted the extension work to others. Whether he was right to do so might be debated, as portions of the more mainstream extension message—emphasizing increased production and the use of more modern equipment and commercial fertilizers—gradually crept in to that of the Tuskegee agents, adulterating Carver’s as they did. (This proved especially true after the state agricultural college at Auburn assumed control of all extension activities in Alabama following the passage of the Smith-Lever Act in 1914.) Even so, Carver continued to help Tuskegee’s extension service when he could, contributing, for instance, information on preserving both wild and domestic fruits and vegetables. Thus, for a number of years, Tuskegee’s extension program enabled the institute to carry Carver’s message of economic empowerment through environmental awareness to illiterate black farmers.
Carver’s campaign ended neither with a blaze of glory nor a momentous defeat. Instead, like many Progressive endeavors, it gradually faded away. Frustrated by an ongoing conflict with Tuskegee’s bureaucracy, he had begun to spend less time in the classroom by 1910 as he poured increasing energy into his traveling lectures and laboratory research. Washington’s death in 1915 made Carver the most recognizable face at the institute, and the demands on his time increased as a consequence. Though Carver continued to publish advice to farmers, his efforts to maintain the experiment station waned during the 1910s, and his plot work on it came to a close in 1925. The experiments he conducted on alternative uses for crops such as sweet potatoes, cow peas, and peanuts, initially undertaken to generate new foodstuffs as well as markets for crops other than cotton, attracted a good deal of attention during World War I as the nation embraced food conservation measures. Those same experiments also attracted the attention of certain interest groups, including the nation’s peanut lobby, which persuaded Carver to testify on their behalf before Congress in 1921. Carver’s testimony there earned the applause of the House Ways and Means Committee, won a tariff for the lobby, and set in motion a series of events that would transform him into an icon. His newfound celebrity further distracted him, and for all practical purposes ended his campaign, though he would return to his concern for black farmers later in life.
Even before he lost focus, however, Carver’s hope that by embracing his peculiar brand of scientific agriculture black farmers could become economically independent proved, on balance, to be a hollow one. To be sure, his conviction that African Americans could use the natural world to bring about economic independence bore a good bit of fruit among black yeoman farmers. Numerous reports exist of independent farmers who took Carver’s advice and became self-sufficient; some, in fact, became landlords. There is sketchier evidence that his plan may have allowed some black farmers to escape the trap of tenancy and become landowners. Writing in 1912, Washington noted, “Down to 1900 there were not, according to the Census, more than 157 Negro farmers in Macon County who owned their own farms. At present they number 503.” Washington ascribed the growth in landownership to Macon County’s relatively good “colored public schools,” which attracted “a more enterprising class of Negro farmers” to the county. Whatever the merits of Washington’s assessment, it seems likely that Carver’s campaign played a substantial role in this increase in the county’s black yeomanry. During World War I, however, many African American landowners in the county (and throughout the region) concluded that any life in the North held more promise than that of even a landowning farmer in the South. As of 1920, after more than two decades of Carver’s four-pronged campaign, fewer than twenty percent of black farmers in Macon County worked their own land. On the whole, it is clear that Carver’s efforts met with considerably less success among the poorest black farmers—the sharecroppers and tenants—whose dependence on landlords and other creditors was essentially unaltered by his crusade. Indeed, most black farmers “throughout the Black Belt of Alabama and [in] other Southern States” continued to live in “squalid, ramshackled cabins,” struggling “year after year in cotton fields… trying to eke out a miserable existence.”
This raises an obvious question: If Carver’s advice was environmentally sound and if it was practical inasmuch as it required few resources beyond a willingness to avail oneself of the abundance the Great Creator so lavishly bestowed in nature—collecting swamp muck, for instance, required nothing more than some time in the woods and access to a mule and a cart—why did his campaign meet with such meager success? To be sure, the answer is not entirely surprising; the region’s racial politics and prevailing economic structures—both of which favored the tenants’ white landlords—undercut his ability to persuade the poorest black farmers that the natural world had provided them with sufficient advantages to permit their economic independence. It is an answer, however, that merits further explanation.
Most obviously, the economic and political structures of the South mitigated against some of the central tenets of Carver’s message, especially that of crop diversification. “Thoughtful farmers are aware that any one crop system is disastrous to the average farmer,” Carver rightly asserted, “and those who are living independently and happily on the farm are those who diversify their crops, or in other words raise some cotton, corn, peas, peanuts, hay, potatoes, sugar cane, garden vegetables.” However, tenant farmers in general and sharecroppers in particular were obliged to plant what their creditors wanted. Landlords allowed tenants to employ substantive crop diversification only in years when the cotton market was particularly depressed. In good years for the market, landlords expected their tenants to plant cotton as widely as possible.
Carver recognized this reality, noting in one experiment station bulletin, “The renter and those who must be advanced have a much more complex problem to solve. They must cooperate with the landlord, and get him to assist in providing ways and means by which they [Carver’s suggestions] can be carried out.” That assistance was seldom forthcoming. Apart from improving the value of their property and recovering their investments from their tenants, white landlords had little interest in aiding the black farmers who worked their land. As Ned Cobb pointed out, “It wasn’t that I was ignorant of what I had to do,” but “you had to do what the white man said, livin here in this country. And if you made enough to pay him, that was all he cared for.”
Similarly, although it certainly made sense to raise livestock of various sorts, most sharecroppers were not in a position to lay out the initial payment for a well-bred animal. Though Tuskegee loaned its stud animals out to local farmers, many African Americans did not own any animals to which they could be bred. Getting a loan for such an animal could be difficult. Securing credit in the South—as in the rest of the nation—was still a profoundly local proposition during the Progressive era. There simply were not opportunities for tenants to appeal to creditors far removed from local politics. For black tenants appealing to white landlords and merchants, this meant that their deference to whites was factored into decisions about credit-worthiness. Since any attempt to become independent of their landlords could be interpreted by their creditors as an effort to transcend “their place,” pursuing the means to financial independence could jeopardize their credit, and thus make acquiring such a loan more difficult.
Moreover, widespread illiteracy among blacks left them open to exploitation in a legal system that relied on written contracts. Cobb’s father, for instance, got permission to sell one of his cows, which were under lien, and after selling it gave the money to his landlord in payment of a debt. The landlord, however, “turned around and sued my daddy for sellin mortgaged property.” Cobb continued, “if my daddy’d had the release in writin, maybe he couldn’t have been messed up that way.” Likewise, one of Cobb’s creditors tried to trick him into signing a contract that would have placed a lien not only on the land he was attempting to buy, but on his mules, cows, hogs, and wagon, which Cobb owned outright. Only the fact that his wife could read enabled him to escape the trap that had been laid for him. “If I’d a signed it,” Cobb observed, “I could have lost it all. Just be late payin on the land and they would take everything.” While Carver recognized that the political and economic systems of the South rendered black tenants vulnerable at every turn, he could find no effective way to address the problems they faced and so could only encourage them to appeal to their landlords for cooperation.
For its part, the white power structure greeted the message of Carver and Tuskegee’s extension agents with some suspicion. Writing in the 1930s, Campbell acknowledged, “White landowners and others at first questioned the advisability of having Negro agriculturists come, especially among their tenants, lest something be done to disturb the established plantation relationship.” At least on one level, their fears were justified. In a study of the Tuskegee demonstration service, Karen Ferguson pointed 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” had a decidedly subversive element to it. However, in order to spread this message, the institute needed the support of both white philanthropists and local planters. This meant that Carver, Booker T. Washington, and the institute’s extension agents had to publicly align themselves with the interests of Tuskegee’s white supporters and appeal to the planters’ self-professed beneficent paternalism. Predictably, this white support diminished their credibility among tenant farmers.
The suspicion with which rural people met Progressive reform is well documented. No matter how sincere the reformers’ motives, their critiques and advice carried implicit assumptions about the ignorance of those they were trying to help—assumptions that understandably raised rural people’s hackles and distrust. David Danbom has persuasively argued that rural people throughout the nation distrusted demonstration agents, suspecting them of advancing an agenda that redounded to little benefit for farmers and their families. This suspicion was magnified among black southerners by the fact that demonstration agents needed the blessing of white landowners whom African American farmers knew for certain did not have their best interests at heart. Indeed, after the plantation owners in Macon County realized that Tuskegee’s extension agents were likely to introduce farming methods that would increase yields and encourage social behavior in line with what they deemed appropriate, they began competing to host demonstrations. The demonstrations generally were carried out in the presence of the landlords, who often required their tenants to attend. Though the aim of extension agents was to liberate black farmers from the debilitating economic dependence of tenancy, their need to assuage white planters linked them with the tenants’ landlords, heightening the distrust of the farmers they were trying to help.
Likewise, tenant farmers found it understandably difficult to take seriously the resolutions of a farmers’ conference that included an expression of their collective appreciation for “the spirit of friendliness and fairness shown us by the southern-white people in matters of business and in all lines of material development.” Thus it is hardly surprising that “in many places in this neighborhood and county,” as Clinton J. Galloway of Tuskegee’s agricultural department noted, there existed “a feeling which [was] not friendly to [the] Institution.” If it is not clear that Carver himself encountered resistance from the farmers he visited in his first decade at Tuskegee, it is apparent that the institute’s extension agents did when they began bringing his ideas to the poor farmers of the county after 1906. Campbell recalled that “the masses of Negroes themselves were none too receptive” to the message carried out from the institute. Understandable as the black farmers’ suspicion may have been, given the circumstances, it succeeded in blunting Carver’s message.
Even if tenant farmers had proven more receptive, however, Carver’s campaign would have faced substantial hurdles. Theodore Rosengarten has rightly pointed out that within black communities of the Deep South, “one could be guilty… of excessive zeal in the pursuit of the good life and excessive pride in attaining it. Righteousness consisted in not having so much that it hurt to lose it. This notion,” he continued, “appears to cater to landlords, merchants, bankers, and furnishing agents by discouraging resistance or ambition on the part of their farmer debtors. But people who lived by it achieved a measure of autonomy.” Campbell alluded to this attitude when he acknowledged that the “Negro renter… is not quickly influenced by the progress which his Negro land-owning neighbor, living in much better circumstances, is making.” Campbell was hardly the only contemporary black southerner to recognize it. In his classic autobiographical novel, Black Boy, Richard Wright described his father as “a creature of the earth” for whom “joy was as unknown… as… despair,” and who “endured, hearty, whole, seemingly indestructible, with no regrets and no hope.” And in Macon County, Janey Leonard, who boasted of always cooperating with Tuskegee’s agents, found herself estranged from her husband, who resented Janey’s ambition. Looking back on their divorce, Janey recalled, “When the deacons asked my husband why we parted, he said, ‘She’s too damned high-minded. She wants too much.'”
If success and its pursuit could breed jealousy and resentment within African American communities of Alabama’s Black Belt, it could also (and much more dangerously) spark white jealousy and resentment. Cobb recounted the sad tale of a neighbor who raised enough cotton to pay off his debts with plenty left over. The man’s landlord had him assaulted and stole his cotton as he was bringing his crop into town to sell. “Beat him up,” Cobb recalled. “Poor fellow got out of there after they left enough life in him to leave. Some of em said they cut his secrets off.” Cobb poignantly added, “That’s the way colored people met their lives in this country, livin on a white person’s place.”
To these obstacles even more might be added. It would be easy to criticize Carver for not providing a more substantive critique of the social, political, and economic factors that undercut his plan and that kept the black labor force of Alabama’s Black Belt and the rest of the South in a position as a perpetually cheap and pliant labor force for white landlords. But it is not clear that such a criticism would be warranted. As historian Linda Hines has pointed out, “Not only did Carver have no desire to be a politician, he did not want to be a black activist or leader any more than he wanted to be a ‘black scientist.'” Like most of the African American farmers he sought to help, he wanted only to be a man, free to pursue his own agenda. Even if he had been willing to speak out against the region’s economic and social institutions, it is doubtful that doing so would have substantially aided his cause. And to be fair to him, despite the number of factors working together to undermine Carver’s efforts, his vision might have been implemented more completely than it was. When Carver admonished black farmers, “Look about you, take hold of the things that are here,” his advice was not entirely impractical. Even a reasonably successful black farmer like Cobb, for example, could have spared himself the annual expense of guano by relying on swamp muck, compost, and manure in the manner Carver suggested. At some level, then, it seems evident that in failing to employ Carver’s suggestions as fully as they might have, black farmers reinforced their dependency on their landlords and contributed to the perpetuation of their cycle of debt.
By the same token, however, 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—it flew in the face of powerful trends toward an industrial ideal in agriculture. The era of modern agribusiness was already dawning as Carver waged his campaign, portending the demise of autonomous, self-sufficient farms. Indeed, by the late 1930s, when Carver came to regret transferring his focus to the commercial possibilities of his research and returned it to aiding impoverished black farmers, the world he had begun to work with was irrevocably gone. New technologies had become necessities in the eyes even of the poorest black tenants, and they could not be produced on farms no matter how independent. The remarkable thing about Carver’s campaign, then, is not that it failed, but rather that he waged it at all. Certainly his hope of establishing a permanent and sustainable basis for southern agriculture that rested on diversified, self-sufficient farms is one worth acknowledging.
Figure 5. Tenant farmers plowing cooperatively, Macon County, Alabama, 1937.
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection, LC-USF34-025442-D, photographed by Arthur Rothstein, April 1937.
Carver’s campaign bore a good bit of fruit among independent black farmers. However, the region’s racial politics and prevailing economic structures mitigated against its success among the region’s sharecroppers and tenant farmers. An overwhelming majority of Macon County’s black farmers continued to work land they did not own.
Carver’s campaign, of course, reveals much about his environmental vision—a vision that entailed an appreciation of the complexity, interdependence and fragility of creation, an abhorrence of waste, a belief in long-term solutions rather than short-term fixes, and a reverence for the natural world. Surely, this is a vision worth recovering in our time. Instead, it is time to reconsider Carver—and to think of him not just as a scientist, a racial symbol, and “the Peanut Man,” but also as an environmental philosopher. Just as importantly, however, his campaign demonstrated that Progressive conservation in the South required a difficult navigation of the region’s land use and its political, economic, and social institutions. No matter what their intent, conservation efforts that failed to account for the socio-economic and racial inequities of the region had little hope of remedying injustices done to the land or, as Carver ultimately discovered, to the people who worked it. This, too, seems as salient in our own time as it was in his.
Mark D. Hersey is a PhD candidate in history at the University of Kansas. He is finishing a dissertation titled, “My Work is That of Conservation”: The Environmental Vision of George Washington Carver.
Many thanks to Donald Worster, Linda McMurry Edwards, Mart Stewart, Dianne Glave, Paul Sutter, Mark Cioc, and the anonymous reviewers for Environmental History for their comments and suggestions.
1. Perhaps the best example of this is Barry Mackintosh, “George Washington Carver: The Making of a Myth,” Journal of Southern History (November 1976): 507–28.
2. Linda O. McMurry, George Washington Carver: Scientist and Symbol (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981). One notable exception merits notice: Gary Kremer’s George Washington Carver: In His Own Words (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1987), an edited collection of Carver’s writings.
3. See David Donald, “An Ambitious Figure,” The New Republic, October 28, 1981, 36. A quick search of J-Stor provides one indication of historians’ dearth of interest in Carver since the publication of McMurry’s fine biography. In the fifty-seven historical journals of the database, the most recent article in which Carver appears as a primary figure is a review of Kremer’s In His Own Words. Indeed the review, which appeared in the Journal of Southern History, was the only review of the book J-Stor brought up. (The Journal of American History listed the work in its “Book Notes” section, but didn’t provide a review proper.) Prior to the review of Kremer’s book, the most recent articles focused on Carver were reviews of McMurry’s work.
4. To be sure, McMurry pointed this out, but it was a point overlooked by Donald and others.
5. James H. Cobb, Jr., “Ford and Carver Point South’s Way,” Atlanta Journal, March 17, 1940, quoted in John S. Ferrell, Fruits of Creation: A Look at Global Sustainability as Seen through the Eyes of George Washington Carver (Wynnewood, Pa.: Christian Society of the Green Cross, 1995), 30; George Washington Carver, “Being Kind to the Soil,” The Negro Farmer, January 31, 1914.
6. He would also baby sit a future secretary of agriculture, Henry A. Wallace, who would later credit Carver for sparking his interest in botany as well as for a philosophy he dubbed “the genetic basis of democracy.” See Henry A. Wallace, Democracy Reborn, selected from Public Papers and Edited with an Introduction and Notes by Russell Lord (New York: Da Capo Press, 1973), 152–59.
7. GWC to My beloved teacher Dr. Pammel, June 8, 1924, Louis Hermann Pammel Papers, Box 4, Iowa State University Archives, Ames, Iowa.
8. One indication of Pammel’s relative position in the field of early botany is that he published roughly seven hundred papers and ten books on topics ranging from pollination to ecology to forestry to grasses to mycology to weeds, with the last two being his particular specialties. For a list of these publications, see Marjorie Conley Pohl, “Louis H. Pammel: Pioneer Botanist,” The Proceedings of the Iowa Academy of Science (January, 1985), 40–50. Today, however, Pammel is best known for the conservation work he did in Iowa and for training not only Carver but Ada Hayden (whom Pammel initially persuaded to study under Henry Cowles at the University of Chicago), another botanist and Iowa conservationist of some note.
9. See Donald Worster, Nature’s Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas, 2nd ed. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 205–12.
10. Ecology, of course, was not the distinct science we discuss today. Various longer-standing sciences, often viewed it as a branch of their own—zoology, botany, and forestry could all claim the science as an offshoot of their larger fields of study. In the introduction to his textbook, for instance, Pammel noted that “the study of these life relations is a branch of physiological botany known as ecology” and that its study “should not precede structure or elementary principles of vegetable physiology.” See Louis H. Pammel, Ecology (Carroll, Iowa: Press of J.B. Hungerford, 1903), ii.
11. The respect that the faculty members at Iowa State afforded Carver is evident in their continued contact with him, as well as their close personal friendships. This was, predictably, reflected in their letters of recommendation. In his letter, Wilson noted, “Except for the respect I owe the professors, I would say he is fully abreast of them and exceeds in special lines in which he has a taste.” Indeed, Wilson closed his letter by noting, “These are warm words, such as I have never before spoken in favor of any young man leaving our institution, but they are all deserved.” For his part, Pammel professed to believe that “Mr. Carver has a great future before him,” and Budd pointed out that Carver would “get next year as good a salary as you offer.” See Rackham Holt, George Washington Carver: An American Biography (New York: Doubleday and Company, 1943), 95–97.
12. Booker T. Washington to Carver, April 17, 1896, GWC Papers, Box 4, Tuskegee University Archives, Tuskegee, Alabama. For most of Carver’s time at Tuskegee, the school was officially the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute. Since it is best known as Tuskegee Institute, I’ve shortened its title throughout.
13. Probably the most obvious connection Carver had with Iowa’s political system was noted agricultural editor “Uncle” Henry Wallace, who founded one of the first Farmer’s Alliances in Iowa. The father of Henry C. and close friend of James Wilson, Uncle Henry had played a major role in subverting the formation of a significant Populist Party in the state. There is no doubt that Populism and its alternatives were thoroughly discussed at the state’s agricultural college in the early 1890s. For more on Uncle Henry Wallace and Iowa Populism, see Jeffrey Ostler, Prairie Populism: The Fate of Agrarian Radicalism in Kansas, Nebraska, and Iowa, 1880–1892 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1993).
14. Carver to Mrs. L. H. Pammel, 30 March 1897, Louis H. Pammel Papers, Box 4, Iowa State University Archives, Ames, Iowa. Though addressed to Pammel’s wife—an indication of Carver’s close relationship with the Pammels—Carver expected his former professor to read the letter as well.
15. “Script for George Washington Carver Broadcast: U.S. Office of Education” (October 19, 1941), GWC Papers, Box 66, Tuskegee University Archive, Tuskegee, Alabama.
16. George Washington Carver, “A Gleam Upon the Distant Horizon,” unpublished typescript (1939?), GWC Papers, Box 65, Tuskegee University Archives, Tuskegee, Alabama.
17. One of the antebellum South’s best-known voices advocating caution was Noah B. Cloud, a resident of Macon County. Among other things, Cloud promoted crop diversification, allowing fields to lie fallow, reinvigorating the humus by working compost and manure back into the soil, and limiting cotton production “to three or four acres [emphasis his] to the hand.” See Noah B. Cloud, “Dr. N. B. Cloud’s Improved System of Cotton Culture,” in J. A. Turner, The Cotton Planter’s Manual: Being a Compilation of Facts from the Best Authorities on the Culture of Cotton; Its Natural History, Chemical Analysis, Trade and Consumption; and Embracing a History of Cotton and the Cotton Gin (New York: C.M. Saxton and Company, 1857), 53–93.
18. Addresses of Dr. N. T. Lupton and Dr. Eugene A. Smith Delivered Before the State Agricultural Society in Convention at Selma, Ala., Feb. 2d, 1888 (Montgomery, Ala.: W. E. Allred, 1888), 23.
19. Report of the Commissioner of Agriculture of the State of Alabama, From September 1, 1883, to September 1, 1886 (Montgomery, Ala., 1886), 10.
20. Addresses of Dr. N. T. Lupton and Dr. Eugene A. Smith, 21.
21. In his landmark book The Bobwhite Quail (1931), Herbert Stoddard pointed out that tenancy improved the environment for some species—the less organized fields and messy hedgerows that so affronted Progressive-era reformers, for instance, proved to be an ideal habitat for quail in the Red Hills of Georgia. This may be the exception that proves the rule, but case studies of tenant landscapes are badly needed. Stoddard was brought to my attention by Bert Way, “Making Wildness: Herbert Stoddard and the Roots of Ecological Conservation in the Southern Longleaf Pine,” Southern Historical Association annual meeting, Atlanta, November 4, 2005. I am indebted to Timothy Silver for articulating the disconnect between Southern historians’ willingness to discuss the soil and their reticence to really study it.
22. George Washington Carver, “What Chemurgy Means to My People,” Farm Chemurgic Journal (September 1937): 40; George Washington Carver, “The Need of Scientific Agriculture in the South,” Farmer’s Leaflet From the Bureau of Nature Study for Schools and Hints and Suggestions for Farmers No. 7 (April 1902).
23. William Bartram, Travels and Other Writings (New York: The Library of America, 1996), 324.
24. Yearly rainfall totals regularly surpassed 50 inches, and some years even exceeded 70 inches. In 1912, for instance, 74.81 inches of rain fell in Macon County. See George Washington Carver, “A Study of the Soils of Macon County, Alabama and their Adaptability to Certain Crops,” The Tuskegee Agricultural Experiment Station (T.A.E.S.) Bulletin No. 25 (October, 1913), 6. Carver later reported that this soil erosion cost the South an estimated $400 million yearly. (See Carver, “What Chemurgy Means to My People,” 40.)
25. Bartram, Travels, 323; Carver, “The Need of Scientific Agriculture in the South.”
26. The missionary metaphor is an apt one. While at Iowa State, Carver had apparently considered becoming a missionary to Africa. See Charles D. Reed to Carver, December 22, 1932, GWC Papers, Box 22, Tuskegee University Archives, Tuskegee, Alabama.
27. Carver to Finance Committee, November 11, 1896, GWC Papers, Box 4, Tuskegee University Archives, Tuskegee, Alabama.
28. By the early 1930s, Carver had become an icon of sorts for various religious groups since he was a highly regarded scientist who credited God for all his discoveries. He frequently spoke at churches, and the titles of many of his lectures included “God” or more often “Creator.” (My personal favorite: “Great Creator, What Is a Peanut: Why Did You Make It?”) Probably his best-known association with mainstream American Christianity came toward the end of his life when he was the chief speaker at an ecumenical, five-day “Crusade for Christ” held in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The advertisements for it described him as a “world famous scientist” and a member of the “Royal Society of Arts (London).” See brochure “A Crusade for Christ,” GWC Papers, Roll 1.
29. To Carver’s mind it was self-evident that God had always been behind him. How else could he explain his intuitive sense for botany and painting, fields in which he had excelled even prior to formal training? Hadn’t God brought into his life a number of people who had enabled him to attend perhaps the leading agricultural college in the nation? Hadn’t he become the only African American with a post-graduate degree in the agricultural sciences? Hadn’t the most famous black man in America begged him to take the position at Tuskegee?
30. Carver was markedly less enthusiastic about the administrative tasks that seemed to him to occupy an inordinate amount of his time. Predictably, this bred conflicts with Booker T. Washington, which in turn facilitated the rise of some rivals within the bureaucratic framework of the agricultural department and, on occasion, prompted Carver to melodramatically tender his resignation.
31. George Washington Carver, “Some Ornamental Plants of Macon County, Ala.,” T.A.E.S. Bulletin No. 16 (October, 1909), 5.
32. George Washington Carver, “Twelve Reasons Why Every Person in Macon County Should Attend the Macon County Fair,” Negro Farmer and Messenger 18 (November 1916). From a certain angle, Carver’s philosophy represented a literal adoption of Booker T. Washington’s call for southerners, black and white, to “cast down your buckets where you are.” Cast down your bucket, indeed, and bring it back up full of swamp muck, or wild vegetables, or manure, or clay, etc.
33. Atlanta Journal, March 6, 1923. Quoted in Linda Elizabeth Ott Hines, “Background to Fame: The Career of George Washington Carver, 1896–1916,” (PhD diss., Auburn University, 1976), 136.
34. McMurry, George Washington Carver, 96.
35. For more on Carver’s educational philosophy see Hines, “Background to Fame,” 100–108; and McMurry, George Washington Carver, 95–103.
36. Carver’s teaching style was not universally admired. Some viewed his linking of varied subjects as “jumping around,” and Booker T. Washington, despite his general admiration for Carver’s teaching, admonished Carver on one occasion, “There is criticism among teachers and students to the effect that in your teaching you do not pursue a regular, logical and systematic course, that you jump about from one subject to another without regard to the course of study laid down in the catalogue.” “Some of your students,” Washington continued, “are getting rather restless.” Washington to Carver, May 3, 1912. Quoted in Mackintosh, “The Making of a Myth,” 512–13.
37. For examples, see Carver, “Nature Study and Gardening for Rural Schools,” T.A.E.S. Bulletin No. 18 (June, 1910); Carver, “Nature Study and Children’s Garden’s,” Teacher’s Leaflet No. 2, Extension Division, Department of Agriculture, Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, Alabama, n.d.; Carver, “Progressive Nature Studies,” Tuskegee Institute Print (1897).
38. See McMurry, George Washington Carver, 95, 99.
39. Thomas M. Campbell, The Moveable School Goes to the Negro Farmer (Tuskegee, Ala.: Tuskegee Institute Press, 1936), 47, 67.
40. Allen W. Jones, “Thomas M. Campbell: Black Agricultural Leader of the New South,” Agricultural History (1979): 42.
41. For an example of a former student who took up farming, see Thomas G. Roberts to Carver, February 1905, GWC Papers, Box 7, Tuskegee University Archives, Tuskegee, Alabama.
42. Agenda for Farmer’s Institute meeting, Tuesday, April 19, 1904, GWC Papers, Roll 1.
43. Figure quoted from Hines, “Background to Fame,” 133.
44. A copy of the resolutions of the first Tuskegee Negro Farmers’ Conference can be found in Campbell, Movable School, 84–86. Lest there be any confusion, it’s worth noting that the town of Tuskegee is distinct from the school located in it. The school was operated entirely by blacks; the town was the county seat and was controlled primarily by whites.
45. Hines, “Background to Fame,” 128. Allen Jones, “Improving Rural Life for Blacks: The Tuskegee Negro Farmers’ Conference, 1892–1915,” Agricultural History (Spring 1991): 109. Jones did not credit Carver for this increase, but instead pointed out that the conference’s popularity was already growing. It is not a particularly ambitious leap (for the reasons outlined) to conclude that Carver played a significant role in helping attendance at the conference increase from roughly one thousand in 1895 to more than two thousand in 1898.
46. Theodore Rosengarten, All God’s Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974), 69.
47. Carver also distributed hybrid seeds developed under his direction at the experiment station. See Hines, “Background to Fame,” 128.
48. For a fuller discussion of the county fair and Tuskegee Negro Farmers’ Conference see Jones, “Improving Rural Life for Blacks” and Hines, “Background to Fame,” 126–34.
49. See Carver, “A Few Hints to Southern Farmers,” The Southern Workman and Hampton School Record (September, 1899); “The Seventh Annual Negro Farmers’ Conference at the Voorhees Industrial School,” GWC Papers, Roll 1; “Kentucky State Teachers Association: Louisville, Ky., December 28–30, 1903: Program,” GWC Papers, Roll 1; “Program for the Twentieth Annual Session of the Alabama State Teachers Association, 1901,” GWC Papers, Roll 1; “Program of the Meeting of the Negro Teachers of the United States, together with those interested in Negro Education at Nashville, Tennessee, August 10, 11 and 12, 1904,” GWC Papers, Roll 1; “Advertisement for the Second Annual Meeting of the Beloit Farmers’ Institute,” GWC Papers, Roll 1.
50. Carver, “A Few Hints to Southern Farmers.” Carver was not, in fact, essentially a hardheaded, economic calculator. On the contrary, he was a Romantic in many ways, prone to citing Tennyson and other poets. Instead, his comment about “worthless puppies” is better understood as an indication that he was aware of just how vulnerable economic dependence made African Americans in the South.
51. Carver, “Feeding Acorns,” T.A.E.S. Bulletin No. 1 (February, 1898); Carver, “Experiments with Sweet Potatoes” T.A.E.S. Bulletin No. 2 (May 1898); Carver, “Fertilizer Experiments on Cotton,” T.A.E.S. Bulletin No. 3 (November, 1899). To be sure, the fertilizer experiments worked. A farmer could get his money back in some cases. But even at the low end of the successful fertilizer experiments, at a cost of $36 “reckoned per acre” (the cost Carver used in his analysis), a forty-acre farm would need nearly a $1,500 outlay for fertilizer—substantially more than any landlord would advance a tenant who might misapply it, etc. (“Experiments with Sweet Potatoes,” 13). Thirty-six dollars per acre was far more than most farmers would spend on fertilizer, but even the more modest use of fertilizer—say six or seven dollars per acre—could run to more money than a tenant was likely to make in a year. Carver, “Some Cercosporae of Macon Co., Alabama,” T.A.E.S. Bulletin No. 4 (January, 1901). As a scientist, Carver probably made his greatest contributions as a mycologist.
52. For a discussion of the funding of the Tuskegee experiment station, see Linda Ott Hines, “George W. Carver and the Tuskegee Agricultural Experiment Station,” Agricultural History 52 (January, 1979), 71–83; McMurry, George Washington Carver, 73–77. Carver and Wilson corresponded regularly along both personal and professional lines.
53. Carver, “How to Build Up Worn Out Soils,” T.A.E.S. Bulletin No. 6 (April, 1905), 4. Carver would later assert, “I made it my practice to do things myself under conditions similar to those of the farmer, and then show him what I had done.” See “Script for Dr. George Washington Carver.”
54. Carver, “Feeding Acorns,” 4.
55. Teasing out the nuances of these divisions would take at least a book-length study. The classic take on efforts to industrialize agriculture in the early-twentieth century is David Danbom, The Resisted Revolution: Urban America and the Industrialization of Agriculture, 1900–1930 (Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University Press, 1979). Danbom divides the movement into social scientists, who at their worst supported compulsion to bring about reform, and agrarians, who at their worst could flirt with impractical sentimentality.
56. Liberty Hyde Bailey to Dir. G. W. Carver, February 4, 1918, GWC Papers, Box 10, Tuskegee University Archives, Tuskegee, Alabama.
57. Carver, “The Need of Scientific Agriculture in the South”; Carver, “What Chemurgy Means to My People,” 2.
58. George Washington Carver, “Three Delicious Meals Every Day for the Farmer,” T.A.E.S. Bulletin 32 (1916), 3.
59. George Washington Carver, “How to Make and Save Money on the Farm,” T.A.E.S. Bulletin No. 39 (1927), 16. In later years, Carver would look back not only on his efforts to improve the lot of impoverished black farmers but on his work as a “creative chemist,” and declare, “My work is that of conservation, the saving of things that the average person throws away.” See George Washington Carver, “A Few Notes on the Demonstration by Dr. G. W. Carver to the Cooking School for Chefs,” June 29, 1936, GWC Papers, Box 65, Tuskegee University Archives, Tuskegee, Alabama.
60. Carver and Austin W. Curtis, “Some Choice Wild Vegetables That Make Fine Foods,” Special Leaflet No. 1, Revised, February 1938. Portions of this were later reproduced in a bulletin issued in March 1942. With the nation at war, Carver seized the opportunity “to render a service much needed at the present time” and so issued a bulletin titled “Nature’s Garden for Victory and Peace.” It is worth noting that some of the leaflets reflected the values of the white culture in which Southern blacks found themselves. One, written by an assistant, laid out plans for black homeownership: “The man who works hard every day—stays at home day and night as he should, is seldom asked to attend court. This kind of farmer can buy land” (emphasis mine). See Clinton J. Calloway, “Buying Homes Among the Farmers,” Farmer’s Leaflet From the Bureau of Nature Study for Schools and Hints and Suggestions for Farmers (November 1901).
61. F. Henry Cardoza, “Relation of Weather and Soil Conditions to the Fruit Industry of Southeastern Alabama,” T.A.E.S., Bulletin No. 11 (January 1908), 5. Cardoza had been a student of Carver’s who at the time of the publication of this bulletin was on the staff of the experiment station. Carver echoed Cardoza’s sentiment in a number of other bulletins, see for example T.A.E.S. Bulletin No. 25 (October 1913), 7.
62. Carver, “Saving the Wild Plum Crop,” 1.
63. Carver, “Feeding Acorns,” 4.
64. W. O. Holmes to the Agricultural Department, Tuskegee Institute, n.d., GWC Papers, Tuskegee University Archives, Tuskegee, Alabama.
65. For evidence of Carver’s awareness of and concern about illiteracy, see Carver, “A New and Prolific Variety of Cotton,” T.A.E.S. Bulletin 26 (1915), 3.
66. Campbell, Movable School, 80.
67. Fur further discussion of Washington’s effort to purchase land with the intent of selling it to black farmers see Robert E. Zabawa and Sarah T. Warren, “From Company to Community: Agricultural Community Development in Macon County, Alabama, 1881 to the New Deal,” Agricultural History (Spring 1998): 459–85.
68. Campbell, Movable School, 87–88.
69. Charles S. Johnson, Shadow of the Plantation, with a New Introduction by Joseph S. Himes (New Brunswick, Conn.: Transaction Publishers, 1996), 13.
70. Campbell, Movable School, 82.
71. Carver to Washington, November 16, 1904, quoted in McMurry, George Washington Carver, 125. At its launch, the Jesup Wagon carried “a revolving churn, butter mould, diverse cultivators, planters, cotton chopper plows, different kinds of fertilizers, seeds, feed stuffs, milk tester, cream separator with a number of charts and demonstrative material.” See “The Jesup Agricultural Wagon,” GWC Papers, Reel 47.
72. Karen J. Ferguson, “Caught in ‘No Man’s Land’: The Negro Cooperative Demonstration Service and the Ideology of Booker T. Washington, 1900–1918,” Agricultural History (Winter 1998): 36.
73. Carver to Wilson, August 5, 1904, GWC Papers, Box 5, Tuskegee University Archives, Tuskegee, Alabama.
74. George Washington Carver, “Much Good Foodstuff Can Yet Be Saved,” n.d., GWC Papers, Box 65, Folder 14, Tuskegee University Archives, Tuskegee, Alabama.
75. In a speech celebrating the efforts of the Tuskegee’s Extension Service, for example, Carver noted, “In fact a live-at-home with a surplus-to-sell program has been the watchword or slogan of this division.” See Carver, “A Gleam Upon the Distant Horizon.”
76. It’s worth noting that when the experiment station’s plot-work ceased in 1925, Carver was at least 60 years old and still a “one-man station.”
77. Booker T. Washington, “The Rural Negro Community,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science (March, 1912): 85.
78. Ferguson, “Caught in ‘No Man’s Land,'” 36, 50.
79. Campbell, Movable School, 80–81, and 109–10.
80. To be sure, collecting swamp muck could be arduous labor. Lifting spadeful after spadeful of muck until enough had been collected to cover forty acres to a depth of several inches was anything but a pleasant task. If anything, it was made less pleasant as it had to be done in the winter, after the fields were harvested and the leaves had fallen from the trees.
81. Carver, “Being Kind to the Soil.”
82. Carver, “Three Delicious Meals Every Day for the Farmer,” 4.
83. Rosengarten, All God’s Dangers, 108.
84. Though he is talking about credit in the immediate wake of the Civil War, Gavin Wright has a greater discussion of this dilemma in Gavin Wright, Old South, New South: Revolutions in the Southern Economy Since the Civil War (New York: Basic Books, Inc., Publishers, 1986), 98–102.
85. Rosengarten, All God’s Dangers, 28, 266–68.
86. Campbell, Movable School, 147.
87. Ferguson, “Caught in ‘No Man’s Land,'” 48. See Ferguson’s excellent article for further discussion of the failure of Tuskegee’s extension program. Though it is concerned exclusively with the institute’s extension program, her contention that its intent was at least de facto subversive is applicable to Carver’s campaign as well.
88. In encouraging the agents, the landlords only risked the possibility that some of their tenants might employ Carver’s suggestions so effectively that they would accumulate enough money to buy their own farms. As Karen Ferguson pointed out, however, “corruption in the settlement of tenant debts and refusal to sell land to blacks, among other coercive methods,” more than sufficed to ensure that black sharecroppers would remain the backbone of the county’s agricultural industry. See Ferguson, “Caught in ‘No Man’s Land,'” 43.
89. Quoted in Allen Jones, “Improving Rural Life,” 109.
90. Clinton J. Calloway to Booker T. Washington, October 1, 1913, quoted in Ferguson, “Caught in ‘No Man’s Land,'” 44. At the time Calloway reported the unfriendly feeling, he was the head of Tuskegee’s extension division; Campbell, Movable School, 147.
91. Rosengarten, All God’s Dangers, xx–xxi; Campbell, Movable School, 117; Richard Wright, Black Boy (American Hunger) (New York: Harper Perennial, 1993), 40–41; Rhussus L. Perry, “Janey Gets Her Desires,” James Seay Brown, Jr., Up Before Daylight: Life Histories from the Alabama Writers’ Project, 1938–1939 (Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 1982), 172–3.
92. Rosengarten, All God’s Dangers, 484–85. It is worth acknowledging that the threat of white violence in Macon County remained only a threat. Thanks largely to Booker T. Washington’s clout, there were no lynchings in the county following the establishment of Tuskegee Institute. Washington’s clout, however, did not protect blacks in neighboring counties, even those affiliated with the institute. Indeed, in November 1902 Carver himself came very near being lynched. As he informed Washington, being forced to “walk nearly all night Tuesday night to keep out of [the] reach” of an angry mob was the “most frightful experience of [his] life.” See Kremer, George Washington Carver: In His Own Words, 149–50.
93. Linda O. Hines, “White Mythology and Black Duality: George W. Carver’s Response to Racism and The Radical Left,” The Journal of Negro History (April, 1977): 143.
94. “Quotations and Photographs of George W. Carver,” Simpson College Archives, Indianola, Iowa, 13.