Science  /  Biography

In Search of George Washington Carver’s True Legacy

The famed agriculturalist deserves to be known for much more than peanuts.
Library of Congress

“And then it dawns on him,” says Hersey. In turn-of-the-century Alabama, black farmers lived a precarious existence, ever-threatened by unevenly enforced laws that disproportionately harmed blacks. After the Civil War, Southern landowners “allowed” poor farmers, mostly blacks, to work their land in exchange for a fee or a cut of the crop. The system was precarious—one bad year could push a farmer into ruinous debt—and unfair: One historian called it “a system of near slavery without legal sanctions.” Near Tuskegee, one tenant farmer was arrested “for chopping wood too close to the property line,” Hersey says. While the farmer remained in jail, whites put up his farm for sale. When tenants didn’t control their land and could be evicted at any time—or kicked off their land on trumped-up charges—they had little incentive to improve the soil.

Still, Carver got to work. He worked tirelessly—the Carver Monument says from 4 a.m. to 9 p.m. some days—on improving crop yields and encouraging farmers to diversify. That, too, was tough: Financially lucrative cotton, Hersey says, was seen as the only crop that could get tenants out of debt. Carver encouraged farmers to grow, or at the very least forage, their own vegetables and proteins so they would spend less money on food. Later, he developed and implemented the Jesup Agricultural Wagon, a school-on-wheels that brought agricultural equipment and demonstration materials to rural farmers unable to travel. The wagon reached 2,000 people a month in its first summer of operations, in 1906.

“What Carver comes to see,” Hersey says, was that “altering [black sharecroppers’] interactions with the natural world could undermine the very pillars of Jim Crow.” Hersey argues that black Southerners viewed their lives under Jim Crow through an environmental lens. “If we want to understand their day to day lives, it’s not separate drinking fountains, it’s ‘How do I make a living on this soil, under these circumstances, where I’m not protected’“ by the institutions that are supposed to protect its citizens? Carver encouraged farmers to look to the land for what they needed, rather than going into debt buying fertilizer (and paint, and soap, and other necessities—and food). Instead of buying the fertilizer that “scientific agriculture” told them to buy, farmers should compost. In lieu of buying paint, they should make it themselves from clay and soybeans.

“He gave black farmers a means of staying on the land. We all couldn’t move north to Chicago and New York,” Michael Twitty, a culinary historian, told the Chicago Tribune.


Sharecropping and Civil Rights

How the system of sharecropping discouraged farmers' investment in land that from which they might be evicted at any time, and how Carver's techniques helped farmers to succeed under oppressive conditions.