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My Work Is That of Conservation

My Work Is That of Conservation: An Environmental Biography of George Washington Carver

Mark D. Hersey
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 306
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  • Book Info
    My Work Is That of Conservation
    Book Description:

    George Washington Carver (ca. 1864-1943) is at once one of the most familiar and misunderstood figures in American history. In My Work Is That of Conservation, Mark D. Hersey reveals the life and work of this fascinating man who is widely-and reductively-known as the African American scientist who developed a wide variety of uses for the peanut. Carver had a truly prolific career dedicated to studying the ways in which people ought to interact with the natural world, yet much of his work has been largely forgotten. Hersey rectifies this by tracing the evolution of Carver's agricultural and environmental thought starting with his childhood in Missouri and Kansas and his education at the Iowa Agricultural College. Carver's environmental vision came into focus when he moved to the Tuskegee Institute in Macon County, Alabama, where his sensibilities and training collided with the denuded agrosystems, deep poverty, and institutional racism of the Black Belt. It was there that Carver realized his most profound agricultural thinking, as his efforts to improve the lot of the area's poorest farmers forced him to adjust his conception of scientific agriculture. Hersey shows that in the hands of pioneers like Carver, Progressive Era agronomy was actually considerably "greener" than is often thought today. My Work Is That of Conservation uses Carver's life story to explore aspects of southern environmental history and to place this important scientist within the early conservation movement.

    eISBN: 978-0-8203-3965-8
    Subjects: History, Environmental Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
    Paul S. Sutter

    Few prominent figures in U.S. history have become quite so two-dimensional as George Washington Carver. Once “the most widely recognized and admired black man in America,” acclaimed for his scientific and technological expertise and lauded as a model of African American achievement, Carver today is relegated to children’s textbooks and inspirational literature. I know this to be true, for while I have never covered Carver in either my U.S. history or my environmental history course, and while none of the college-level textbooks weighing down my shelves have Carver in their indexes, I helped my older son, on two different occasions...

    (pp. xiii-xviii)
    Mark Hersey
  5. PROLOGUE Macon County, Alabama, 1896
    (pp. 1-7)

    In the autumn of 1896 George Washington Carver stepped down from a train in Macon County, Alabama. As the only African American then holding an advanced degree in agricultural science, he arrived in the Deep South with a head full of knowledge and a deeply held conviction that God had chosen him to be of service to his people. A native midwesterner, Carver could hardly have been less prepared for the social, economic, and ecological realities he encountered in Alabama. Arriving as he did in October, he must have seen African American tenant families wearily picking cotton in dozens of...

  6. CHAPTER 1 Were It Not for His Dusky Skin
    (pp. 8-23)

    Some people develop an appreciation for nature late in life. George Washington Carver was not one of them. He had no mountaintop epiphany, no camping-and-tramping moment of clarity, no sudden awakening at the sight of a cotton field on the boll at sunset. His profound and abiding connection to the natural world was instead rooted and nurtured in his childhood. What is known about that childhood, however, has been pieced together from a decidedly fragmentary record: a small handful of documents along with the reminiscences of Carver himself and those of a few “old-timers” who had known him in his...

  7. CHAPTER 2 The Earnest Student of Nature
    (pp. 24-48)

    When Carver arrived in Ames in 1891, the Iowa Agricultural College was emerging from a low point in the uneven growth that marked its early years. Its origins date to March 1858, when the Iowa legislature created a state agricultural college. The following year the state purchased nearly 650 acres near Ames, and by 1861 the first building had been erected. In 1862 the state legislature voted to endorse the Morrill Act, which had been passed by Congress that year to fund land-grant colleges designed to encourage the teaching of “such branches of learning as related to agriculture and mechanic...

  8. CHAPTER 3 The Ruthless Hand of Mr. Carenot
    (pp. 49-82)

    Despite his thorough scientific training, Carver was unprepared in some significant ways for the world he encountered when he stepped down from the train in Macon County, Alabama. As a native of the Midwest, Carver found himself in unfamiliar social, political, and ecological terrain. Understanding that terrain is essential to understanding Carver’s environmental vision, for his efforts to reform the prevailing agricultural landscape are unintelligible considered outside the agroecological context of Alabama’s Black Belt—along with the socioeconomic and political world that shaped it. Furthermore, this was the world in which he went for daily nature walks, collected mycological specimens,...

  9. CHAPTER 4 In a Strange Land and among a Strange People
    (pp. 83-98)

    After spending virtually all of his life in the Midwest, it is no surprise that in Alabama’s Black Belt Carver found himself “in a strange land and among a strange people.”¹ The landscape itself was very different from the ones he had previously known. In place of “the golden wheat fields and tall green corn of Iowa” were “acres of cotton, nothing but cotton … stunted cattle [and] boney mules.”² In contrast to Iowa, where fertile loess soils supported profitable farms, much of Macon County, Carver ruefully noted, had soil that amounted to “practically a pile of sand and clay,...

  10. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  11. CHAPTER 5 Teaching the Beauties of Nature
    (pp. 99-123)

    Carver’s campaign to help “his people” began in the classroom, where he sought to train not only good farmers but agricultural emissaries who would take his gospel of scientific agriculture to black communities throughout the region. Risking the displeasure of Washington and lending credence to his critics’ complaints, Carver initially privileged his work with students over that of the institute’s farms. Convinced that one or the other “must suffer,” as Carver had explained to Washington in 1901, he believed that teaching had to remain paramount for the sake of his campaign. Since “we must send out students who are to...

  12. CHAPTER 6 Hints and Suggestions to Farmers
    (pp. 124-159)

    It is perhaps extraordinary that Tuskegee had an experiment station to begin with because it was not a land-grant college when Carver took over the agricultural department in 1896. In 1871, nine years after the passage of the original Morrill Act, Alabama set aside some of the Morrill funds to establish two land-grant colleges, one for whites that opened in Auburn in 1872, and one for blacks that opened a few years later in Huntsville. In 1883 the legislature established an experiment station in Auburn for the purpose of making “cotton production less expensive and less time consuming” so that...

  13. CHAPTER 7 The Peanut Man
    (pp. 160-178)

    The World War I years were the best and worst of times for Carver. In the summer of 1914 he was injured in an automobile accident. “This summer I came near loosing [sic] my life, and I am yet unable to see how I could pass through such an ordeal and yet live,” he wrote the Milhollands shortly before Christmas that year. A truck in which he had been riding “turned turtle with several of us in it,” and he had been “pinned down under the truck, badly bruised and cut up,” but with “no broken bones” or other serious...

  14. CHAPTER 8 Divine Inspiration
    (pp. 179-193)

    Henry A. Wallace’s assessment of Carver’s place in chemistry proved more or less accurate. There is no question that Carver’s legacy as a scientist, especially as an innovative “creative chemist,” has been overblown—a phenomenon rooted in the fact that a number of groups had an interest in bolstering his fame. The peanut industry, the Farm Chemurgic Council, and New South advocates all heralded him as a representative of their respective causes. African Americans saw him as evidence of what could be accomplished in spite of Jim Crow and as an example that undermined the very assumptions on which segregation...

  15. CHAPTER 9 Where the Soil Is Wasted
    (pp. 194-218)

    As Carver’s religious devotion to the natural world mounted in his last years, so too did his regret about abandoning the campaign he had initiated following his arrival at Tuskegee. He had come to the Deep South, after all, with the aim of lifting impoverished African American farmers from the slough of tenancy and sharecropping; it was his great purpose, a divinely appointed one. While celebrity had brought its rewards, it had distracted him from that purpose, and so in the twilight of his life he turned his eyes again to the impoverished black farmers of Macon County and the...

  16. EPILOGUE My Work Is That of Conservation
    (pp. 219-226)

    Forty years after he first stepped down from a train in Macon County, Carver looked back over his career—not only his efforts to improve the lot of impoverished black farmers but his work as a “creative chemist”—and declared, “My work is that of conservation.” In the immediate context of his declaration, he was addressing “the saving of things that the average person throws away,” and he had in mind his life’s work, from encouraging farmers to see in forests a natural fertilizer factory and in the clays on which they walked dyes and paints, to finding industrial uses...

  17. NOTES
    (pp. 227-280)
  18. INDEX
    (pp. 281-290)
  19. Back Matter
    (pp. 291-291)