RSM Profile: George Washington Carver

Like many members of Generation X (Remember us? Goatees, flannel, post-graduate malaise? No? Oh, well…) whenever I hear the name of George Washington Carver, I automatically think of Eddie Murphy as Shabazz K. Morton in his infamous “Black History Minute” sketch on Saturday Night Live. Specifically, I remember the penultimate line, riffing on Carver’s fate after selling his peanut butter invention to white men named Skippy and Jif: “While Dr. Carver died penniless and insane, still trying to play a phonograph record with a peanut.” (Still makes me chuckle.)

The truth of Dr. Carver’s life, however, is far more eventful than even Mr. Murphy could make it. Born to slave parents in Missouri, Carver was stolen from his home as a baby, later found and traded back to his masters in exchange for a race horse. From such humble beginnings, and despite the barriers thrown up by his poor health and race, Carver rose through the academic ranks at colleges in the plains states, eventually earning his master’s degree in agriculture in 1896. Later that year came the opportunity that would forever define his legacy.

In 1896, he accepted an invitation from Booker T. Washington to head up the agriculture department at Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute. Despite submitting numerous resignation letters over the years (reportedly due to his wounded pride) Carver remained at Tuskegee for the rest of his life.

He gained early recognition by pioneering crop rotation methods that, fittingly enough, allowed farmers to restore health to the Southern land after it was depleted by “King Cotton.” His real claim to fame, however, came in his inventions making use of agricultural products like soybeans, pecans, sweet potatoes, and of course, the peanut. Reports claim Carver concocted nearly 300 products from the humble legume, leading Time to dub him “The Peanut Man.” A few years later (perhaps feeling they had undersold Carver’s genius) Time added the sobriquet, “The Black Leonardo” in lauding his skill as an artist.

Carver’s fame was such that he regularly corresponded with Mahatma Gandhi and was offered a position with Thomas Edison. Carver refused, choosing to spend his days in the Alabama town that had become his home.

As much of interest to Carver as peanuts was his Christian faith. He said of his mornings: “All my life, I have risen regularly at four o’clock and have gone into the woods and talked with God. There he gives me my orders for the day.” He also believed faith could bridge the gap between races, exhorting his students with these eight cardinal rules:

  • Be clean both inside and out.
  • Neither look up to the rich nor down on the poor.
  • Lose, if need be, without squealing.
  • Win without bragging.
  • Always be considerate of women, children, and older people.
  • Be too brave to lie.
  • Be too generous to cheat.
  • Take your share of the world and let others take theirs.

Sounds like a Real Southern Man to me.

We do need to dispel one myth before we go. Despite his many inventions based upon the peanut, Carver did not, in fact, invent peanut butter. It has been around since the Aztecs. Sorry, Shabazz.

3 Responses to “RSM Profile: George Washington Carver”

  1. An interesting article! Thank you for that. I too, think Dr. Carver is a fine example of a “Real Southern Man.”



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