The community of Beatrice and Homestead National Monument of America will host the 2012 Chautauqua in conjunction with the kick-off of a year of events commemorating the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s signing of the Homestead Act. Other notable American historical figures who will be portrayed during the week-long celebration include Mark Twain, Willa Cather, Standing Bear, Gen. Grenville Dodge, and Laura Ingalls Wilder.
George Washington Carver was born into slavery in 1861 near Diamond Grove, Missouri. He was the son of a slave woman owned by Moses Carver. Since slave owners found it difficult to hold slaves in the border state of Missouri, his owner sent the young boy and his mother to Arkansas.
After the war, Moses Carver learned that all his former slaves had disappeared except for the frail, sick child known as George. He was returned to his former master’s home and nursed back to health. Although the Carvers told him he was no longer a slave, he stayed on the plantation until he was ten or twelve years old.
At that time, he left the plantation to acquire an education. He supported himself by doing various jobs such as household worker, hotel cook, and farm laborer. By his late twenties he had managed to obtain a high school education in Minneapolis, Kansas, while working as a farm hand. He filed a homestead claim in West Central Kansas, but like many Americans who homesteaded, he was not able to “prove up” and had to relinquish the land.
After a Kansas university refused to admit him because he was black, he enrolled at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa, where he studied piano and art. He then transferred to Iowa State Agricultural College in Ames where he received a bachelor’s degree in agricultural science in 1894 and a master of science in 1896. Today the school is known as Iowa State University, the first land grant college under the Morrill Act.
Carver left Iowa for Alabama in 1896 to direct the newly organized Department of Agriculture at the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, a school headed by the noted black American educator, Booker T. Washington. Despite many offers elsewhere, Carver remained at Tuskegee for the rest of his life.
When agriculture in the South was in serious trouble because of the single crop cultivation of cotton, Carver urged Southern farmers to plant peanuts and soybeans and sweet potatoes to restore nitrogen to the soil and badly needed protein to the diets of many Southerners. There was little demand for these new crops, so Carver set about promoting the commercial possibilities of the peanut and sweet potato. He ultimately developed 300 derivative products from peanuts including cheese, milk, coffee, flour, ink, soap, cosmetics, and plastics; and 118 products from sweet potatoes including vinegar, molasses, rubber, and postage stamp glue.
Late in his career, Carver declined an invitation to work for Thomas A. Edison at a salary of more than $100,000 a year. Presidents Calvin Coolidge and Franklin D. Roosevelt visited him, and his friends included Henry Ford and Mohandas Gandhi.
In 1940 Carver donated his life savings to the establishment of the Carver Research Foundation of Tuskegee for continuing research in agriculture. During World War II he worked to replace the textile dyes formerly imported from Europe, and in all he produced dyes of 500 different shades.
His great desire in later life was simply to serve humanity. His work, which began for the sake of the poorest of the black sharecroppers, paved the way for a better life for the South. His efforts brought about a significant advance in agricultural training in an era when agriculture was the largest single occupation of Americans.
Attendees at the May Chautauqua will have an opportunity to listen to Paxton Williams’ interpretation of George Washington Carver - the man who is best known for his work at Tuskegee Institute and the agricultural innovations that he formulated there. Following the 40-minute, first person presentation, audience members can ask questions of Carver, the historical figure, and then ask questions of Mr. Williams, the scholar who portrays him.
Chautauqua is made possible through funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Nebraska Cultural Endowment, Friends of Homestead National Monument of American, and the State of Nebraska.
The article was compiled and submitted by
Bette Anne Thaut, member of the
2012 Beatrice Chautauqua Committee.