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Raleigh H. Merritt (Raleigh Howard)
From Captivity to Fame or The Life of George Washington Carver
Boston, Mass.: Meador Pub. Co., 1929.

Summary

Born just before the end of the Civil War, George Washington Carver (1864-1942) spent one year in slavery, but that year altered the course of his life. His father died shortly after Carver's birth, and his mother was kidnapped by slave raiders when he was only six weeks old, leaving him a nameless orphan. Moses Carver, the former owner of George Washington Carver's parents, raised the boy until he was ten, when George Washington Carver left Diamond Grove, Missouri, to acquire an education. In 1896, Carver earned a master's degree in agriculture from Iowa State University. He planned to remain at the school as a teacher, but when Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) offered him a position at the Tuskegee Institute, Carver accepted and spent the rest of his life at Tuskegee. In his work as an instructor and researcher at Tuskegee, Carver claimed to have invented hundreds of new uses for sweet potatoes and peanuts, but he filed only three patents (none of which were commercially successful) and rarely documented his work. While modern science has found flaws in Carver's work, his practical agricultural advice did achieve his "primary object . . . of being the greatest assistance to the Southern Farmers; in helping them to have better farms, and happier homes, with plenty of food raised on the farms, and also a surplus to sell" (p. 30).

While Carver never sought fame, he accepted his role as a public figure, and when a former student named Raleigh Merritt (1896-1990) offered to write his life story, Carver accepted. Merritt published the Life of George Washington Carver in 1929 with a large selection of Carver's agricultural advice as well as recipes for peanut soup, peanut carrot fudge, and sweet potato puffers.

When slave raiders kidnap Carver's mother at the beginning of Merritt's Life, they also take her infant son, but Moses Carver sends "out a rescuing party, which recovered him in exchange for a race horse valued at $300" (p. 13). When the party returns, Moses Carver and his wife have "faint hopes of raising the babe of six weeks old, because he was very sickly, and had a severe whooping cough," but they care for the child anyway (pp. 13-14). The Carvers wait until he is old enough to talk and work before naming him George Washington Carver "because of his faithful devotion to his work, and also his habitual truthfulness about everything" (p. 14).

As a boy, Carver spends most of his free time "roving the woods, and acquainting himself with every queer flower and peculiar weed" he finds, filling his pockets with insects and other interesting natural artifacts (p. 14). At night, after his work is completed, Carver teaches himself to read and write by memorizing "an old blue-back speller by the dim light of the burning logs in the fire place" (p. 16). When he finishes with the speller at age ten, Carver leaves his home and walks eight miles to the nearest town with a school in order to satisfy his "continuous desire of acquiring knowledge," spending "the first few nights in an old horse barn" until he makes "friends with a Mr. and Mrs. Watkins, who adopted him into their family" (pp. 18-19).

Carver quickly discovers that the schoolmaster knows little more than he does and travels to Fort Scott, Kansas, in search of better teachers. He completes his secondary education by age nineteen and applies to an unnamed college in Iowa, where he is accepted. When Carver spends all of his savings to relocate and tries to enroll, however, the college rescinds its offer of acceptance "because he was a Negro" (p. 21). Undaunted, Carver saves his money again and enters Simpson College, where he excels not only in academic subjects but also in extracurricular activities such as painting and singing.

Carver thrives at Simpson College, but an instructor "profoundly impressed with his talents and his ability . . . frankly told George that there was not much that he could hope for [at Simpson] in the way of developing his talents" (p. 22). In 1890, Carver transfers to Iowa State, where he studies agricultural chemistry until earning his masters degree in 1896 and accepting the position Booker T. Washington offers him at Tuskegee.

Carver inherits dilapidated facilities in the Tuskegee agricultural department but immediately begins "carving something out of nothing." Since the college cannot afford necessary laboratory equipment, Carver creates it out of "old bottles, broken china, and bits of rubber and wire" that his students gather for him from the alleys (p. 27). Carver also gathers samples of the local flora, roaming "over the hills with his case, stopping here and there and gathering plants" (p. 28). This is unusual behavior to the local residents, who come to him "for treatment and for medicine" because they believe "that he was a 'root doctor,'" a common term for nineteenth-century practitioners of hoodoo, a kind of magic.

Carver's walks serve dual purposes: they allow him to collect scientific specimens and to commune with God at the same time. Though Carver receives advanced scientific degrees during an era in which Darwinian theories prompted conflicts between scientists and theologians, he seeks to reconcile the differences between the two. In a Sunday evening Bible class, Carver teaches students by illustrating "stories out of the Bible out of his own experience either as a boy or out of his laboratory work" (p. 52). Carver believes in accepting truth wherever he finds it. He tells his students that "Science is Truth, and all Truth is of God" and paraphrases a well-known Bible verse with the words "Ye shall know science and science shall make you free" (pp. 60, 56-57).

Carver believes that science can free Southern farmers from poverty, and his innovative uses for peanuts and sweet potatoes center around a desire to break the hold of cotton monoculture. Hoping that his inventions will turn peanuts into a cash crop, Carver extracts "202 different products from the peanut," including "soap and soap-sticks, face powder, face bleach, washing powder, milk, as good or better than cow's milk, several kinds of wood stains and dyes" (pp. 33-34).

Carver's innovations earned him fame, but Merritt's Life maintains that "[h]is spirit and character are even more wonderful than his accomplishments" (p. 22).

Works Consulted: Edwards, Linda McMurry, George Washington Carver, Scientist and Symbol, New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.

Zachary Hutchins

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