Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The George Washington Carver Exhibit at the Missouri History Museum

Last year for Memorial Day I was in Chicago. There were signs everywhere advertising an upcoming exhibit about George Washington Carver, quite arguably, the father of African-American Science. Though I visited Chicago a few more times over the summer and early fall, I was unable to make the exhibit at the Field Museum. Then lo, as I was enjoying one of the last Twilight Tuesdays concerts of the 2008 season, I saw a familiar banner. The George Washington Carver exhibit was soon coming to my town! How lucky I felt. I really wanted to see this exhibit. And anyone who knows me – as an educator and scientist – knows how I get can get swept up in a learning theme. I mean what’s better than imparting information about a host of subjects – science, social studies, agriculture, ecology, history, politics, business – than through all-engaging real-life theme.

I feel many connections to the Carver story. His first learning experiences were while he was outdoors playing. He studied agriculture – so did I in college. He did not attend a Historically Black College or University. He believed in vocational purpose and his work was intended to help those who would benefit from his inquiries the most, the under-served rural African-American community. He was eco-conscious and promoted environmentally friendly living and farming. And as I learned during my visit to the George Washington Carver Exhibit at the Missouri History Museum, he was an Outreach Scientist, as I aspire to be. He readily shared his knowledge with others.

In 1896 completed his graduate studies in Agriculture at what is now called Iowa State University, considered one of the leading universities in agriculture education and research. He was immediately recruited to the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama by Booker T. Washington. The college was an active learning center. Students worked and learned simultaneously, applying the concepts and principles of knowledge on campus – either building classrooms or farming the fields.

Academically, Carver was a perfect fit for the institution. True to his agriculture training, he was an applied scientist. He used knowledge gained from basic science to solve humanities pressing problems such as hunger and economic disparity. His understanding of ecology, mycology, soil science, chemistry, crop rotation, fertilization, pest control, and use of rhizomal plants like peanuts, revolutionized farming. He helped farmers take better care of their soil so that it could provide the food and cash crops needed to support their families.

Related to that, he developed countless ways to use these novel crops – soybeans, sweet potatoes, and peanuts. Unlike cotton, the cash potential for these crops was considered very low. As a result of his diligence, Carver discovered expanded food and nutritional use for these crops, such as flour, candy, oils, and sugar. He developed hygiene, household, and industrial products, too -- such as lotions, cleansers, renewable fuels, paints, and stains. Because all of these products were from plants, they were lower in toxicity, had less of a negative environmental impact, were renewable, and biodegradable. In fact, many of his agriculture approaches are now the foundational concepts of Eco-conscious and Sustainable Living. He encouraged farmers and families to compost and rotate their crops and he routinely recycled and repurposed discarded items. Professor Carver was Green, all the way!

However, Carver believed his research was pointless if he could not bring knowledge to the people. He published bulletins in simple everyday language to communicate with teachers, farmers and housewives how to cultivate, grow, and prepare products from soil to table. And there was the Jessup Wagon. The Jessup wagon was a movable school that Carver and his students used for community outreach. They would park the wagon at public events fairs or after church and deliver the information directly to the people. The wagon included educational materials about better farming practices, including charts about farm animal husbandry, farming products and equipments, as well as demonstrations and samples of crops and soil samples. He even enticed the farmers with product giveaways such as seeds and farm tools. The whole of his academic endeavors were dedicated to helping poor rural farmers get the most of their land and he used every media method available to him to reach people.
This fabulous exhibit ends on Monday, March 1, 2009. Don’t miss it or else you will have to go to Dallas, Texas, were it is travelling next.


Kevin Zelnio said...

Terrific post! I had no idea about him beyond he was an inventor. Thanks for digging up the great piece of american history!

Karl Leif Bates said...

Thanks for sharing. Thanks to an oft-read book I had growing up, Carver has always been one of my heroes. I fell in love with the idea of a guy taking just one thing -- the peanut -- and figuring out absolutely everything he could about how to use it. Still am, in fact.

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