George Washington Carver: An Uncommon Life

George Washington Carver: An Uncommon Life

PBS (2020)

Film Review

This is an intriguing documentary about the highly controversial African American George Washington Carver. The latter has come under heavy criticism from anti-Jim Crow activists (starting with W.E.B Dubois 1868-1963) for his failure to challenge the institution of racism.

I should note that two of the corporate financial interests that sponsored the making of this film (DuPont and Alliance Energy) have appalling record when it comes to acknowledging any kind of racial or social justice. Thus I suspect the history they portray may be somewhat “sanitized.”

I  myself knew almost nothing about Carver’s life prior to watching this film. Born into slavery in 1864, Carver and his mother were illegally abducted when he was only a few months old and resold to an Arkansas plantation owner. The family’s former slave master Moses Carver traveled to Arkansas to retrieve the family.

Because George Washington’s mother had disappeared, Moses and his wife raised him and his older brother as their own children. The brother helped Moses around the farm, and George Washington, who was sickly, stayed in the house and learned cooking, knitting, sewing, and other womanly skills.

At 12, a Black family adopted him to enable him to attend a black school eight miles away. His adoptive mother was a midwife and folk healer.

After high school, he applied to Simpson College in Indianola Ohio to study painting. Concerned Carver couldn’t make a living as an artist, his art teacher encouraged him to transfer to Iowa State  Agricultural College. After completing his bachelor’s and master’s degree, he became the first African American on the faculty of Iowa State University. While there, he became close friends with three successive US Secretaries of Agriculture, including Henry Wallace, who served as Vice President under Roosevelt.

In 1896 Booker T Washington (also attacked by DuBois for being an accommodationist) invited him to start a department of agriculture at Tuskegee University in Alabama. Despite a substantial pay cut, Carver, hoping to improve the miserable lives of Alabama’s black sharecroppers, accepted.

In addition to working in his chemistry lab and teaching classes, Carver assisted thousands of Black sharecropper to improve their yields. Because only 1/5 of 5 million sharecroppers owned their on land, sharecropping and tenant farming were essentially an extension of slavery. (See Sharecropping: The Hidden History)

The biggest contribution Carver made was to teach sharecroppers to diversity away from cotton, which was depleting their soil. He also taught them to replenish their soil with organic fertilizers and with crop rotation involving legumes and sweet potatoes. He particularly encouraged them to grow peanuts, a legume with extremely high nutritional value.

During his lifetime, Carver discovered 300 products farmers could make from peanuts, including peanut butter.

Never marrying, Carver (who counted Henry Ford, FDR and Edison among his circle of friends) lived alone in a dorm room and rarely socialized.

 

 

 

 

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