Beyond peanuts: The depth behind George Washington Carver

Thursday, February 23, 2012 | 10:26 p.m. CST; updated 11:01 a.m. CST, Friday, February 24, 2012
Gary Kremer, author of "George Washington Carver: A Biography," spoke about Carver's conservation work during a lecture at the State Historical Society of Missouri on Thursday.

COLUMBIA — George Washington Carver was more than the man who delved into the scientific study of a tasty legume. His role — as a scientist and an influential man — has solidified his spot as one of the most historic individuals in the state of Missouri. 

"Carver was a very complex man," said Gary Kremer, director of the State Historical Society of Missouri and author of "George Washington Carver: A Biography."


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"He should be known for more than his work with the peanut." 

Kremer and Charles Nilon, an MU School of Natural Resources professor, spoke about the tremendous impact Carver had on those who surrounded him and discussed the incomparable influence of Carver's work as a conservationist in a lecture at the State Historical Society on Thursday.

As a part of the State Historical Society lecture series, this event was meant to commemorate Black History Month, Kremer said.

"Carver had exceptional background and training, produced messages that still resonate today and played a large role in the study of conservation that are still apparent in modern day," Nilon said. 

Carver's powerful impact on people

During a time of racial strife, Carver, who taught at Tuskegee Institute from 1896 to 1943,  served as a spokesman for the Commission on Interracial Cooperation to promote racial harmony.

"People believed his soft demeanor would ease racial relations," Kremer said. "He did not have a powerful speaking voice, but he had a very commanding presence." 

Carver traveled to various areas of the South to speak to groups of young, white teenage males throughout the 1920s. Immediately after speaking, these students would want to meet and talk with him. 

"These teenagers were the children or grandchildren of slave owners," Kremer said. "Virtually everywhere he went, he would have a mesmerizing effect on these kids." 

Kremer said that Carver developed many close relationships with the young men. Carver described the individuals that he developed relationships with as his "surrogate family" or "his boys," Kremer said.

"These teenage boys would visit all-black Tuskegee at a time of high racial tension," Kremer said. "They retained lifelong relationships with Carver." 

At Tuskegee, many individuals had mixed opinions about Carter. Nilon said his grandmother, who was a student at Tuskegee during the time of George Washington Carver, recalled accounts of Carver's close relationships.

"As a historic person, it's interesting the impact he had on people," Nilon said. "His impact of his work is one thing, but he also had a great impact on people." 

Carver as a conservationist

Carver's study of conservation and ecology is a facet of his life that has become increasingly prevalent in today's society. Carver's primary study was the relationship between plants and the environment. 

"I think that his impact that people look at now is his thinking of how he managed land and agricultural production," Nilon said.

According to Nilon, Carver credits his experience living in Missouri as a reason for his study of plants, ecology and conservation. Carver's focus during his time at Tuskegee Institute, however, was primarily about how to bring scientific agriculture to the area. 

"He was a man given to visions," Kremer said. "He had a dream about how he could make Alabama clay produce green grass." 

According to Nilon, Carver promoted environmental education for Southern farmers. As a scientist, he wanted to maximize the abilities of farmers in the area. Nilon said Carver suggested the following strategies: 

  • Composite animal manure with the farmland
  • Minimize the use of chemical fertilizer 
  • Build up soil
  • Increase the use of native plants 

These methods promoted by Carver have carried over into modern day. According to Nilon, individuals at the George Washington Carver National Monument in Diamond are trying to better demonstrate the conservation methods he used. 

"A lot of the ecological work they are doing at the National Monument is interpreting what Carver did," Nilon said. "They are trying to understand how to manage the land at the monument to get a feel of the landscape Carver experienced when he was there." 

According to Nilon, Carver was an activist in the Nature Study Movement of the time, which promoted environmental education, and he once wrote, "Nature is our greatest educator."

"Carver as a conservationist is perhaps his greatest contribution to American life," Kremer said.

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Ellis Smith February 24, 2012 | 3:40 p.m.

Where did Carver receive his higher education? Carver was born in and grew up in southwest Missouri. Did he receive his higher education in Missouri? If not, why? (You needn't give me an answer - I know it.)

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