Along a shallow creek in the woods of rural southwest Missouri sits a bronze statue resting atop a large limestone rock. It’s of a young boy, who sits upright, shirtless, with his right hand resting upon his knee, his left supporting a small plant.
The nine-foot high sculpture pays homage to George Washington Carver, who was born a slave on this land, the Moses and Susan Carver farm, in 1864.
“He’s often seen in kind of this one-dimensional way as the wise and affable peanut guy and his 300 uses of the peanut. The real Carver is much more multi-dimensional.”
That’s Jim Heaney, superintendent of the George Washington Carver National Monument in Diamond, Missouri.
“Sure he was a scientist. But he also promoted racial tolerance, racial reconciliation. He was an artist, he was a musician, he was very much interested in the performing arts,” he said.
Haney says to understand the full story and success of Carver you need to know his struggle.
Carver’s birth came in the latter stages of the Civil War, as guerilla tactics were intensifying along the Missouri-Kansas boarder. He never knew his father, and his relationship with his mother was short lived. The two were kidnapped by outlaws when Carver was just an infant. His mother was never found. Carver was located in Arkansas and returned to his owners, nearly dead from whooping cough. His frail health freed him from many daily chores, offering time to explore. The outdoors would become Carver’s first classroom, according to park ranger and tour guide Emily DeLanzo.
“This is where George fell in love with learning and developed this extreme curiosity about the natural world,” says DeLanzo.
George Washington Carver National Monument is a roughly 210 acre complex that includes a one-mile, self-guided loop that takes you past his birthplace site, the Boy Carver Statue, across the creek where the young Carver used to fetch water, and along a tallgrass prairie restoration area.
Inside the Visitors Center is a museum, which Heaney describes as he guides me through the building.
“This is where kids can connect to Carver in 19th Century education. Next door, [you see] extensive exhibits interpreting not just Carver’s life but also African American history.”
We then enter a science lab.
“This is really the highlight for the school groups. We have a lab kind of roughly based on the lab at Tuskegee that Carver worked in and this is where the kids do scientific experiments related to Carver. The most popular activity is they make peanut milk.”
There’s also an educational film, bookstore, and various artworks depicting the famous scientist.
“You get a real good sense of the Carver’s spirit here and his communion with nature as a child,” says Heaney. “How he became known as the plant doctor and how this place kind of cultivated his curiosity and set him on the road to become what he eventually became.”
What he became wasn’t just a scientist, but a humanitarian and teacher, among other roles and characteristics. After attending high school in Kansas and college in Iowa, Carver made his career studying at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, a renowned school for African Americans.
Carver’s research and training included crop rotation and the development of alternative cash crops. He would convince Southern farmers to expand beyond king cotton to grow soil-enriching crops like soybeans and peanuts.
Carver became widely known in 1921 after captivating testimony before a Congressional House committee debating a peanut tariff bill. Shortly thereafter Carver began earning speaking appearances at colleges where no African Americans had ever been welcome.
Park Superintendent Jim Heaney notes that of everything Caver did, he’s probably most important as a symbol.
“As a symbol of African American achievement, of pluckiness – succeeding despite the odds, just a symbol of, how would you say it, resilience, really.”
And that’s resonated with park patrons of all ages, including fourth-grader Naomi Chayer with Grace Classical Academy out of Springfield.
REPORTER: “What have you learned with attending here?”
“That George Washington Carver wouldn’t give up,” Naomi said. “How he wanted to show how he could show the world that he could do stuff.”
The experience at Carver National Monument, and that of others operated by the National Parks Service – which turns 100 this year - is currently the focus of a project that aims to record conversations from the local communities, park visitors and employees. Using the interview model from StoryCorps, whose mission is to preserve and share humanity’s stories, Park Ranger Lana Henry shares with her daughter the memories of her 38th year participating in the annual Carver Days celebration.
“As I was coming across the lawn and enjoying the prairie wildflowers and the tall grasses and the woodlands; the squirrels and the rabbits – everything it was beautiful for people of all ages, all generations, a place to rejuvenate, to stand in awe of nature, to be inspired by Dr. Carver’s story,” Henry says.
Yearly attendance at the park is upwards of 45,000, with school groups making up about a quarter of that.
In addition to everyday sites and experiences at the park, special events include Art in the park, where visitors can learn about Carver’s love for the arts with artist’s work placed throughout the park grounds. The aforementioned Carver Days, which has been in existence since the park was established, is July 9 this year. Educational sessions will speak to the legacy of park service land, plus an author’s story on an inspirational book documenting Carver’s relationship with a child with polio. Additionally, there will be gospel music, peanut milk demonstrations, and a play depicting the black experience in the Heartland.
George Washington Carver died at Tuskegee on January 5, 1943. It was just six months later that the U.S. Congress designated George Washington Carver National Monument, the first national park to honor an African American. The honor extends beyond Carver’s vast impact on science, but also reflects his achievements as an educator, artist, and humanitarian.
Heaney adds, “Carver’s just one man, but there’s so many ways to approach him and so many ways you can get people to connect to his story.”