Being an African American, a scientist and a history nerd I often reminisce about how people of color have interacted with agriculture, and nature more broadly, and how I can see those lasting impacts today. A big part of my black identity is related to remembering those ancestors who overcame hardships, whether it be institutional or environmental, and turned ‘lemons into lemonade’. George Washington Carver personifies this in my heart. I try to imagine if I could maintain his patience, appreciation of nature, faith and commitment during turbulent times as the world around him changed so quickly.
Black History Month is a great time to remember we all stand on the shoulders of giants and we should try to remember those people and learn from their trials and tribulations.
George Washington Carver was born to slaves in 1864, five years after the end of Bleeding Kansas and one year before the official abolishment of slavery, in what is now Missouri.
As he grew up in Kansas in the 1890s, he remained diligent with his education while remaining aware of the changing world around him. During this period, the agricultural business in the United States was shifting towards more industrially advanced equipment and scientific methods that increased land efficiency. Carver saw this as an opportunity.
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. - George Washington Carver
Due to his African American heritage, he struggled to gain entrance into a number of colleges, but finally was allowed to attend Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa. Following this, he attended Iowa State, at which point he graduated with a master’s degree in agriculture.
Following his graduation from Iowa State, he received a request from the founder of the Historically Black College Tuskegee University, Booker T. Washington. He stated:
“I cannot offer you money, position or fame. The first two you have. The last from the position you now occupy you will no doubt achieve. These things I now ask you to give up. I offer you in their place: work — hard, hard work, the task of bringing a people from degradation, poverty, and waste to full manhood. Your department exists only on paper and your laboratory will have to be in your head.” Carver accepted this challenge to teach agriculture, horticulture, mycology and painting.
He remained at Tuskegee University for 47 years, imparting agricultural knowledge not just to African Americans who attended the university, but internationally.