December 10, 2018
This was an amazing man. Born a slave; Small in size; Frail and sickly; Black when it wasn’t good to be black with all the added hurdles and hardships that came with it. And yet, he left behind an astounding number of “distinct and legitimate reasons for having passed through” this world.
We decided to visit the Tuskegee Institute National Park site after we spent most of the day at the Tuskegee Airmen base. They were over 45 minutes from our campground so we decided to do two in one day. While this would probably be easy for most people, it was really hard for us. We felt we had missed so much by rushing through. Next time we will move our camp so we don’t have to skimp on our touring time.
Tuskegee Institute was a black university established July 4, 1881 by Booker T. Washington. You can tour his home, drive or walk through the institute, view the historic buildings, visit the graves of Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver AND visit the George Washington Carver Museum. We weren’t able to get much history on Booker T. Washington and the college as the NPS only gives tours of his house on certain days and we were not there on the right day. If you plan to go, check the schedule first. What we do know is that Booker T. was all about education to better blacks once they were emancipated and his university is where early students learned to build and farm as part of their curriculum. The historic buildings and homes that you see were built by the students using bricks made by the students. We know that Booker T. Washington built a college that stood the test of time and is highly rated to this day. And we know that Tuskegee Institute is where George Washington Carver finally found a home.
The museum covers Carver’s early life, his continuing quest for education and his love of discovery. Even as a child, Carver would go out into the woods, find a plant and ask the creator what it was for. He believed everything was put on this earth to benefit man and we just needed to figure out what to do with it. He was REALLY good at figuring out what we can do with many of the plants he encountered. Now this great scientist did not originally go to school for agriculture, botany or any of the other things he is known for. He wanted to be an artist. An art professor felt a black man would have a hard time making a living off of art and steered him toward Botany. It’s lucky for us he did but Carver did not totally give up art. Some of his paintings are on display in the museum. Also on display are the pigments he made from Alabama clay, the pottery he made from Alabama clay, the rugs and cloth and rope and other items he learned to make with local plant fibers, the dyes he made, and so on. Once he figured these things out, he taught the local farm families to do the same. He taught them how to grow vegetables to feed their families and how to cook them and preserve them. The farmers were too busy on their farms to travel to Tuskegee to see what they could learn. They were busy struggling to live off their depleted farms. So Carver invented a rolling classroom and took the lessons to the farmers.
As you can see, once Carver was working at Tuskegee Institute, his focus turned to assisting the agricultural community of the south. He wanted to put food on everyone’s table. He wanted to improve the soil and thus improve the crop yield. His tests of the soil showed that their cotton crops were depleting the soil. He figured out that rotating the cotton with nitrogen rich plants like peanuts, sweet potatoes and soybeans would refresh the soil. It worked. The cotton crop was doing great as were the alternate crops they rotated in the fields… BUT, now what do you do with all those “other” crops? You need a market. There wasn’t a market for them so he made one. Back to the lab tables he went to search for answers… and back to the creator to ask “Mr. Creator, will you tell me why the peanut was made?” And, apparently, the Creator did answer because the list of products that Carver created from the peanut is long (over 300), however, it does NOT include peanut butter. I find that incredibly interesting that he never thought to grind the actual peanut into a paste and eat it. Below is a list of uses that he found for those surplus crops (in order shown on the chart): peanuts, sweet potatoes, soybeans. Not all of these products “took off” but enough of them did that crop rotation became a standard and the farmers made money both on cotton and their “alternate” crops.
John and I were amazed at how many different things Carver did during his life. He was consulted as a child by local farmers on how to improve their soil. By 11 he was on the road in search of a more thorough education. He not only finished college but went on to advance studies at Iowa University. Finally, he was invited to join Tuskegee Institute where he had his own lab and taught students. His students loved him but he wasn’t fond of teaching. He just wanted to research, study, learn and help people. Eventually he was able to do just that.
I loved his favorite poem. It is posted in the museum with an audio recording of him reciting it. The poem is “Equipment” by Edgar A. Guest. You can read it here: www.tuskegee.edu/support-tu/george-washington-carver/carver-favorite-poem
The beginning of the poem is “Figure it out for yourself, my lad” – This, and the rest of the poem, pretty much sum up the man. Figure it out for yourself, pull yourself up, make it happen. The frail orphan slave that never quit, grew up and changed the world.