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Plant-Grow-Give Honors George Washington Carver

Agricultural scientist George Washington Carver is a man often spoken about during Black History Month, and rightfully so, but his legacy is often reduced in the popular understanding to simply “peanuts.” Many don’t know the powerful extent of Carver’s environmental, educational, and spiritual contributions, which is why Plant, Grow, Give would like to highlight his story for the Black History Month newsletter. George Washington Carver was born in Missouri in 1864, however his exact birthdate is unknown, because he was born into slavery. Approximately one year after his birth, with the ratification of the 13th Amendment and the abolishment of slavery, he was adopted by his former enslaver Moses Carver, which is where he gets his last name. Carver was a child prone to illness, who found solace in the nature surrounding his home, which he studied with great interest. He became known for his botanical skills and as a teenager earned the moniker “Plant Doctor.” It was here in nature where he found spiritual sustenance and started his path as both a scientist and a Christian. Of the connection between his love of the environment and religion, he said- I love to think of nature as an unlimited broadcasting station, through which God speaks to us every hour, if we will only tune in.” Though clearly academically gifted, Carver was unable to attend the nearby all-white school, and would instead walk miles to the nearest school for black children. He eventually picked up and moved altogether, making a living as a farmhand, laundryman, and cook while he studied. After completing his high school education, he enrolled in college, becoming the first ever black student at Iowa State University. He gained recognition there as a brilliant student of botany, and his professors encouraged him to continue to his masters. His subsequent work on plant pathology and mycology gained him national recognition and upon graduation, he became the first black faculty at Iowa State in 1896. That same year he was invited by Booker T Washington to head the Agricultural Department at the Tuskegee Institute. Carver worked at Tuskegee for 47 years where he developed the agricultural department into a world renowned research center. After years of environmental degradation due to monolithic cotton farming, Carver’s educational work played a huge role in helping southern black farmers achieve autonomy from cash crops through soil healing methods such as crop rotation, composting, and yes, peanut farming. What is often lost in the story of George Washington Carver and his peanuts is the “why.” Most simply put, certain plants, rather than take nutrients from the soil, can help replenish them. These plants are “nitrogen fixing” (they take atmospheric nitrogen and put it back into the soil through their roots) and these include peanuts, soy beans, and sweet potatoes, all crops which Carver promoted. With his “mobile classroom” Carver went out into the farmlands and reached out directly to farmers in need. Through his work, many black farmers were able to learn self-sufficient farming techniques that improved their lives and the land.

Through his pioneering work, George Washington Carver achieved celebrity status in his lifetime. He was widely admired by many, and was consulted by three sitting US presidents - Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, and Franklin Roosevelt and he personally visited the crown prince of Sweden. He developed friendships with both Henry Ford and Mahatma Gandhi, consulting with the former on product development, and the latter on vegetarianism. He toured Southern colleges and spoke on the need for interracial harmony.

George Washington Carver was a man who was born enslaved and whose genius and dedication were so great that, despite incalculable obstacles, he rose to worldwide prominence. His environmental legacy reminds us of God’s grace found in the natural world around us and his work with southern farmers highlights the power of self-sufficiency. Here at Mercy Home, where we work to provide a loving environment for those in our care, along with the support to build independent skills, we may look to this powerful figure in Black History as inspiration and strength.

This post was beautifully written by Mercy Home's wonderful horticultural therapist, Ms. Margaret Riche

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