Scientist filled the 'empty dinner pail'
George Washington Carver's legacy extends from the kitchen to industry, the environment and civil rights
Number one: This cookie has a delicacy, an elegance, not associated with the robust kids' cookie made with peanut butter. (Bill Hogan/Chicago Tribune)
Carver's work with peanuts and other crops at Alabama's famed Tuskegee Institute benefited millions of farmers in the first half of the 20th century.
"The primary idea in all my work was to help the farmer and fill the poor man's empty dinner pail," he once said. "My idea was to help the 'man farthest down,' this is why I have made every process just as simple as I could put it within his reach."
Food science is a field viewed with mixed feelings by many these days. But Carver's research was seen at the time as a blessing for farmers, especially for African-Americans struggling to make a living across the rural South. Cotton was king, or so the old saying went, but cotton also robbed the soil of all nutrients. Carver promoted peanuts, soybeans and sweet potatoes as crops that could restore farmland to productivity.
But he didn't stop there. Carver realized farmers wouldn't grow these plants unless there was a strong enough demand for them. So he created uses for these crops that extended far beyond the kitchen — some 285 uses for peanuts alone, according to a 1941 Time magazine article.
"He gave black farmers a means of staying on the land. We all couldn't move north to Chicago and New York," said Michael Twitty, a Rockville, Md.-based writer, food historian and blogger at afroculinaria.com. "Carver knew the value of working the land, of being with the land, of working with each other."
Carver cared not just for the health of the land but the health of the farmers, Twitty added, noting that the diet of poor African-Americans at the time was often referred to as the "Three M's": Meat, meal and molasses. Carver promoted crops designed to enrich the diet.
A man of faith as well as science and a very talented artist, Carver took a green approach to life that many would recognize today. "I love to think of nature as an unlimited broadcasting system, through which God speaks to us every hour, if we will only tune in," he once said.
Besides championing farmers, Carver promoted natural medicines and believed in recycling. He was "a pioneer of the green manure movement," said Gary R. Kremer, author of 2011's "George Washington Carver: A Biography" and executive director of the State Historical Society of Missouri.
Kremer said Carver was ultimately unsuccessful in his dream to transform the South and its economy, largely because so many farmers didn't own the land they worked. But the author said Carver transformed the lives of so many others by inspiring and empowering them.
Born a slave in the last years of the Civil War, Carver became one of the most prominent African-Americans in what was then a legally segregated United States. Henry Ford was his friend. Time lauded him as the "Black Leonardo." So potent a symbol did he become that eight years after his death in 1943, the federal government issued a commemorative half dollar honoring him and Booker T. Washington, Tuskegee's founder and first president. Carver's birthplace in southwestern Missouri was also turned into a national monument and park.
For Twitty, the attention and respect paid to Carver by whites during the Jim Crow era had a double edge.
"Here's a shining example of the Negro thriving under segregation," he said. "If they stay in their own place, build their own bricks and don't ask us for anything, then everything is OK. We can deflect all the tensions and all the negative."
Yet Twitty noted that Carver's work has a "subversive" element; many who studied with him went on to build the civil rights movement.
Take 88-year-old Eliot Battle of Columbia, Mo. He went to the Tuskegee Institute so he could study under Carver. What struck him most about Carver?
"His brilliance, and his ability to talk and visit with anybody and not make them feel he was as brilliant as he was or that we were as average as we were," recalled Battle, who went on to a career as an educator and civil rights leader. "He always gave time to anyone who approached him. … He was a positive man with such strength of character."
Given the growing interest in the agricultural topics Carver was exploring a century ago, there's been a resurgence of interest in him.
"A lot of people writing cookbooks focusing on natural, healthy foods are following in his footsteps," Twitty said. "Peanuts and sweet potatoes wouldn't have been emphasized if not for Dr. Carver."
Peanut cookies, number one