- My Work Is That of Conservation: An Environmental Biography of George Washington Carver
In elementary schools across Alabama and throughout the country, children are introduced to George Washington Carver, the African American farmer and scientist who discovered myriad uses for the common peanut. The son of a Missouri slave, Carver has become something of a caricature, known familiarly as “the Peanut Man” for his best-remembered accomplishment. Yet, as Mark D. Hersey, an assistant professor at Mississippi State University suggests in this superb biography, Carver’s work was more complicated and more important than simply finding innovative uses for peanuts. The agronomist embraced an ideology of sustainable agriculture that he hoped would liberate African Americans farmers in the Black Belt from the straits of tenancy. Constrained by race, the politics of Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee, and eventually by his own mythology, Carver failed to upset the economic and racial hierarchies of the New South, even as he became, in Hersey’s reckoning, a “prophet of sustainable agriculture” (218). Recounting the way that Carver’s life and work emphasized a specific environmental vision, Hersey situates the scientist within the larger political, economic, and social currents of the New South and in the process, provides a valuable addition to Alabama history.
Hersey centers his work on Carver’s “environmental vision,” and much of his biography is an attempt to describe the source and scope of the scientist’s views on nature and agriculture (6). While studying agricultural science in Iowa, Carver encountered the Progressive idea of conservation, which envisioned the environment as a “working landscape” most valuable to humans when managed scientifically and intelligently. Yet unlike his conservationist teachers and contemporaries, Carver’s initial understanding of the “uses” of nature was complicated by the reality of farming in the Black Belt. Recruited to Tuskegee in 1896, Carver found himself in the midst of an irreversibly damaged landscape. In the most fascinating section of this biography, Hersey provides a concise but well-constructed environmental history of the southern Black Belt, noting specifically how an overreliance on tenant farming wasted the soil, circumscribed opportunities for diversification, and relegated [End Page 250] African Americans to cyclical poverty in addition to racial segregation and political disfranchisement. As Hersey notes, “Vulnerable to fraud, perpetually in debt, and politically powerless, black tenants had little incentive to labor diligently. As they did not own the land and were not tied to it, they had no reason to take good care of it” (81). Carver thus turned to practical solutions that might provide the kind of relief that would help southern tenants gain economic independence.
Carver’s experiments with alternative uses for easily grown crops (most famously the peanut, but also sweet potatoes and cowpeas) provide a telling but incomplete glimpse into his larger vision for the southern environment. The scientist believed that southerners who relied solely on cotton embraced agricultural “waste”. Cotton sapped the soil of nutrients and prevented farmers from growing alternative crops which could be sold for income, consumed by malnourished families, or converted into useful products. In class lectures, on his experimental farm and on the grounds of the college, in public appearances, and in published pamphlets, Carver extolled the virtues of sustainable agricultural practices. He encouraged farmers to replenish soil nutrients with widely available natural fertilizers. He showed farmers how to grow a variety of crops and demonstrated that simple plants, such as the sweet potato or peanut, had uses beyond human consumption. He believed, somewhat naively, that “every able bodied hard working person [could] live … comfortably, educate his family, and even have a few of the luxuries around him if he only knew how” (143).
Despite the promise of Carver’s vision, he failed to challenge tenancy in any meaningful way. As his popularity increased, Carver’s image as an accomplished African American scientist at the best known black learning institution in the South overcame his central message. New South boosters, representatives of agricultural...