The Buried Environmental Justice of George Washington Carver
“The Peanut Guy” is how many people think of George Washington Carver if they think of him at all.
It is true that he did some dynamic work with the peanut and is credited with developing about 300 uses for the legume including soap, cheese, paper, cosmetics, wood stains, medicines and ink. But this is not the contribution he should be celebrated for. How many of our lives have benefited from peanut face cream?
In his lifetime, Carver was used and tokenized. White elites used him to prove that Black folks could become successful under Jim Crow. According to NPR’s Gene Demby, “Because he eschewed making political statements, he was a blank screen onto whom anyone could project his own ideologies.” A form of this continues today when we only mention Carver during February and teach school children that his contribution to the world is a peanut glue.
The history of environmentalism churns out the same names — James Audubon, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson — Mostly white men. James Audubon enslaved people.
Carver’s name never makes the list.
But, there is another list that we rarely see but is more crucial than the one above — those that work at untangling the knot that ties together systemic racism with environmental degradation.
Carver and the Southern Farmer
Decades after the end of the Civil War, the government having rescinded its promise to grant 400,000 acres of land to former slaves, most Black farmers were stuck in the system of sharecropping and tenant farming. This has been referred to as slavery by another name.
Cotton, the crop that made the South rich before the Civil War, was still king. Millions of acres of southern forest had been burned down to make room for the crop. Cotton’s roots had been sapping southern soils for centuries, the land was eroded and destitute.
Carver came to Alabama to accept a position as Tuskegee Institute’s (now Tuskegee University) Agricultural Director. He quickly got to work on his life’s mission, to improve the lives of poor southern farmers and the land they worked.
Environmentalism today often focuses on what someone else is doing, it condemns and rarely attempts to understand the people whose hearts, minds and behaviors it wants to change (look at food politics for example).
Carver didn’t stay in the classroom. He walked the southern farms with sweet potato candy in his pocket for the children. He worked with locals on developing their crafts and embroidery to sell for debt paydown and extra income. He saw the fields of cotton planted right up to the farmer’s doorstep, with no room left for a vegetable garden to feed the family. He planted with them and talked about eating collards and kale instead of tossing it to the hogs to prevent the pellagra that so many people were stricken with. He was not only trying to build up worn-out soils but also worn-out systems.
This is the reason for Carver’s well-known peanut work. The peanut, a legume, sequesters atmospheric nitrogen in the soil. His peanut inventions, which he presented to the United States Congress in 1921, aimed to provide a robust marketplace for Black farmers to sell their harvests.
We can gain insights into Carver’s thinking on ecological farming through a series of more than 44 bulletins that he published between the years 1898 and 1943. These bulletins mostly center on practical farming advice for southern sharecroppers.
Carver the Permaculturist
In his first bulletin, titled, Feeding Acorns, Carver observes that the forests of the South are full of acorn-bearing oaks. He goes on to write that acorns have always fattened wild animals that were then hunted by humans. He lays out an argument to use this natural resource to fatten hogs lessening farmer’s dependence on field-grown corn while raising better hogs.
Carver writes extensively about fertilizer. He discourages farmers from buying potash and instead encourages them to go into the forest to collect fallen leaves and muck from swamps for their compost piles. He stresses this point in several bulletins and in Twelve Ways to Meet the New Economic Conditions Here in the South, writes, “every idle moment from now until planting time should be put in gathering up these materials” (pg. 4).
Carver steers farmers away from monocultures and instead advocates for a mix of crops, fruit trees, cows, chickens, and pigs to be on the same farm. He also recommends flowers outside the farmer’s door because, “we often send for the doctor, and take a lot of strong, disagreeable medicine when all we need is a bunch of beautiful flowers from a loving hand” (Twelve Ways, pg. 10).
In these writings, Carver is observing and interacting with nature, using natural solutions, and integrating systems. These are all principles familiar to permaculturists and ecological farmers. But, you will not find his name mentioned in any of that literature.
As a boy, Carver created a flower garden near his house in Diamond Grove, Missouri. He hid it in the brush because it was considered foolish to waste time on flowers. He would gently dig up wild plants to transplant to his garden; yarrow, Queen Anne’s lace and black-eyed Susans. He would protect them with tin cans and gourds.
For gardeners, our gardens are where we are grounded, where we say the names of lost ones over the tops of rosemary bushes. For Carver, I can only speculate at what his secret garden meant to him. When only a few weeks old, he and his mother were kidnapped. Carver was recovered, his mother was not. After, he was raised by Moses Carver, the same man that enslaved him and his mother. For all of Carver’s adult life, he wore a flower in his lapel.
Carver had the indomitable will of an oak tree. He would walk nine miles to school because the ones near his house did not allow Black children. When he arrived at Highland College with an acceptance letter in hand, they turned him away when they saw that he was Black. He went on to be the first Black student to attend Iowa State University where he had to eat separately from the white students. He worked his way through his schooling by doing other people’s laundry, cleaning barns and cutting wood. When he appeared before the House of Representatives, one Congressman made a racist joke. He went on to convince the body to pass a peanut tariff to protect southern peanuts from imported crops.
A Rich Soil
Carver’s environmentalism was not a myopic patchwork of simple solutions aimed at individual responsibility like today’s calls to eat less meat or ban plastic straws. He knew that degraded soils and demeaned cultural systems go hand-in-hand.
So, he tackled both simultaneously with rare skill. He met with tenant farmers as well as U.S. presidents. He was as deft with a plow as he was eloquent on the floor of the House of Representatives. Carver wrote with passion about soil and sweet potatoes, with conviction about garden programs in schools, and with resourcefulness about cooking and eating weeds during the meager times of World War I.
By learning about and implementing Carver’s teachings today, we might be able to regenerate some of the collapsed soil all around us.
Carver, Washington. “How to Build up Worn Out Soils.” Experiment Station, Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, 1905.
Carver, Washington. “Twelve ways to meet the new Economic Conditions Here in the South.” Experiment Station, Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, 1917.
Demby, Gene. “George Washington Carver, The Black History Monthiest Of Them All.” NPR, NPR, 11 Feb. 2014, www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2014/02/11/275330069/george-washington-carver-the-black-history-monthiest-of-them-all.
Vella, Christina. George Washington Carver: A Life. Louisiana State University Press, 2015.