George Washington Carver's affirmative action

Posted: Jan 28, 2003 12:00 AM
JOPLIN, Mo. -- Peanut Butter, Peanut Brittle, Peanut Sausage, Peanut Punch, Peanut Powder, Peanut Wafers, Peanut Oil, Peanut Chili, Peanut Cream, Peanut Malt, Peanut Coke, Peanut Cutlet, Peanut Flour, Peanut Cake, Peanut Wine, Peanut Loaf, Peanut Relish ... If George Washington Carver, born near Joplin, is remembered at all during February's Black History Month, it will be largely for his favoring of one food. Carver gained a national reputation in 1921 when he gave the House Ways and Means Committee a Washington show-and-tell by pulling out products he had developed, like peanut cereal, chocolate-covered peanuts, peanut milk and peanut syrup. With the publicity that followed, Carver became probably the most famous African-American of the 1920s and 1930s. Born a slave in 1860, his scientific investigations led him to make significant contributions to mycology (the study of fungi) and to improved production of pigments, paints and stains. As a professor at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama for over four decades, he challenged thousands of black students to rise above racial prejudice and not just complain about it. But Carver is not as well known now as contemporaries like W.E.B. DuBois, who demanded radical societal change. To those on the left, Carver's creativity in making the growing of peanuts and other crops economical and popular seems like small sweet potatoes (another of his high-nutrition, low-cost recommendations). The 60th anniversary of Carver's death (Jan. 5, 1943) engendered no articles about him in the nation's major newspapers. Carver is also politically incorrect because he believed God inspired him to come up with creative ideas. "I didn't make these discoveries," he told interviewers. "God has only worked through me to reveal to his children some of his wonderful providence." Under a headline, "Men of Science Never Talk That Way," The New York Times lambasted him in 1924 for his "complete lack of scientific spirit" in saying that religious belief was essential to his work. To understand the roots of Carver's biblical faith, it's good to come to the George Washington Carver National Monument near Joplin. Here, a visitor's center plaque quotes Carver recalling that, as a child, "my body was very feeble, and it was a constant warfare between life and death to see who would gain the mastery. ... I trusted to God and pressed on." Here, reared by Moses and Susan Carver, a white couple, Carver grew up on the land that now makes up the National Monument. Today, it's pleasant to see Moses Carver's house, the walnut trees he planted, and the fields and creeks where George came to see God's revelation in nature's order. It wasn't always pleasant for Carver as he sought to get an education. He applied by mail to Highland College, a small institution north of Kansas City, and gained acceptance. When he arrived, the university president said: "You didn't tell me you were a Negro. Highland College does not take Negroes." At age 30, Carver was finally able to enroll at Simpson College, a Methodist school, and then move on to become the first black graduate student at Iowa State. Prejudice dogged him, but Carver fought it by demonstrating not just equality but superiority. Carver's Iowa State professors described him as "the ablest student we have here." The freshmen he taught in an introductory biology course began calling him "Dr. Carver" out of respect, even though he had yet to earn a master's degree. Many black students today yearn for such honoring. The prejudice that Carver faced was terribly wrong. A counter-bias today tells some bright students that they don't have to work to their utmost to get ahead, and leaves many not knowing what they have earned and what has merely been given them. That's also wrong.