Posted by: Kath Usitalo | January 21, 2011

Digging The Peanut Man At The Henry Ford

Carver's microscope was donated to Henry Ford Museum by the scientist's assistant, Dr. Austin W. Curtis, who opened Curtis Laboratories in Detroit after George's death

George Washington Carver is one of those Important Historical Figures we spent maybe 15 minutes learning about in grade school, unless you were the kid who pulled his name when the great American biography book reports were assigned.

Then you knew that he was born a slave who became a scientist and did a lot of work with peanuts.

If you’re at all interested in filling in the blanks about “The Peanut Man,” head to the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn to catch the George Washington Carver exhibition before it closes February 27.

You’ll be greeted with this introduction: “George Washington Carver was born a slave, struck by life-threatening illness, kidnapped, orphaned, and emancipated—all in the first year of his life.”

An embroidered tablecloth, doily, and rug by George

Things could have gone downhill from there, but through displays and artifacts you’ll learn how George made the most of his remaining 78 years. That he was raised by his former owners, Moses and Susan Carver on their farm near Diamond, Missouri (today a National Park). How “Aunt Susan” taught him to weave, crochet and embroider—samples of his handiwork are displayed.

And how at 13 George, determined to get an education, left the farm to attend a school for black students in Neosho, Missouri. It was the first stop on a trail that continued through Kansas and Iowa, where he began studying art but landed at Iowa State College to focus on agriculture. He also became the college’s first black faculty member.

Carver's typewriter

In 1896 Booker T. Washington invited Carver to head the agriculture department at Tuskegee Institute (now University) in Alabama. He accepted and was stunned when he arrived, saying, “When my train left the golden wheat fields and tall green corn of Iowa for the acres of cotton, nothing but cotton, my heart sank a little…Everything looked hungry: the land, the cotton, the cattle, the people.”

Carver began his life work at Tuskegee based in the belief that with good agricultural practices leading to healthy crops and bountiful harvests people could become self-reliant, well-nourished and prosperous.

He focused on replenishing the earth, which had been depleted by years of growing only cotton, through practices that are popular today: sustainable agriculture and organic farming. Carver was “green” in his use of composting, natural pest control and crop rotation to enrich the soil.

Carver and Henry Ford

He introduced new plants to the area, especially peanuts, sweet potatoes and black-eyed peas, and invented new uses for them. His work in “chemurgy,” creating industrial products from agricultural materials, caught the attention of Presidents, politicians and industrialists including Henry Ford. The two men became friends and worked together on projects including uses for Ford’s favorite, soybeans.

Carver, “The Peanut Man,” was noted in national magazines like Life, Time, and Ebony for his “humility, humor, and self-made success.”

The celebrity traveled and talked about his work, Tuskegee, and racial harmony. He died on January 5, 1943, and later that year President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared the first national monument dedicated to an African-American would be built at the Diamond, Missouri site; it opened in 1953. Carver was the subject of a U.S. postage stamp in 1948, a half dollar in 1952, and in 2007 the ultimate commemorative, a finger puppet.

The exhibit is a fascinating look at the professional accomplishments—it’s scarce on details about his adult personal life—of the man who contributed much to the world of science but will always be known for the 1925 booklet, “How to Grow the Peanut and 105 Ways of Preparing It for Human Consumption.”

Carver's battered guitar; in 1941 Time magazine called him the "Black Leonardo" (as in da Vinci) for his many talents

Carver’s Legacies: Food, Farming and the Future of Agriculture
A public symposium about the man and his contributions and today’s interest in urban farming will take place Saturday, January 29 at Henry Ford Museum. The ticket ($37 museum members, $45 non-members) includes the program, buffet lunch, and admission to the GWC exhibit. Reservations are required; phone 313-982-6001.

VISITOR INFO CLICKS: The Henry Ford

Detroit

Pure Michigan

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