Sense of Place: Restoration is Underway in Neosho to Preserve a Part of African American History

Dec 11, 2018

George Washington Carver, famous for his many contributions to agriculture as a chemist at the Tuskegee Institute, was born into slavery sometime in the 1860s (no one knows for sure) on the farm of Moses Carver in Diamond, Missouri.

From what historians can tell, Moses and his wife, Susan, were fond of little George who loved to help with domestic chores.

He desperately wanted an education, but when he tried to attend a nearby school he was turned away because of the color of his skin.

Kim Mailes, chairman of the Board of Directors for the Carver Birthplace Association, said Neosho had to establish a school for black children in 1872 because of a law passed by the Missouri Legislature following the Civil War, "saying that local schools who had sufficient numbers of African American children must establish an educational facility, so Neosho had enough."

Four years after the Neosho Colored School opened, George Washington Carver, only 10 to 12-years-old, according to Mailes, walked eight miles into the unknown to seek an education, "not knowing where he's going to live, not knowing how he's going to feed himself, but he says, 'I'm going because there's a school there I can become educated.'"

It was an arduous journey to go from the Carver Farm to the Neosho Colored School, according to James Heaney, superintendent of the George Washington Carver National Monument in Diamond.  And not only was it arduous, he said, it was dangerous.

"A black man was just not safe traveling anywhere in this country and yet he did it, and he did it very boldly, very bravely," said Heaney.  "Just the fact that he left here as a kid to go down to Neosho--sure, it's only eight miles, but a lot can happen in those eight miles to a young black kid."

But Carver made the journey anyway, and settled for the night into the loft of a barn right next to the school.  The next morning, Mariah Watkins, who lived in a house on the other side of the barn with her husband, Andrew, discovered Carver in the loft.  The Watkins, prosperous for African-Americans at the time, invited Carver to live with them.  Mariah was the midwife for Neosho and delivered as many as 500 children, according to Mailes, including the famous artist, Thomas Hart Benton.  They never had children of their own.

The Watkins were influential in Carver’s life in two ways, said Mailes.  "One, think about it, until he left this farm, he had never really known other black people, so living with them and going to school was his first immersion into African American society, and then, secondly, (Mariah) was a deeply spiritual women.  Her Christian faith was very important, and she instilled that in Carver," said Mailes, "and matters of faith influenced him for the rest of his life.  She gave him the admonition to learn all he could and then give that learning for the good of his people."

Historians believed Carver attended Neosho Colored School for about a year and a half, and Mailes said it wasn’t long before he knew more than the teacher, Stephen Frost.  According to Heaney, on at least one occasion, a classmate, Cal Jefferson, remembered Carver correcting his instructor.

Carver left Neosho with a black family who was moving to Kansas where there was a better school he could attend.  He graduated from high school in Minneapolis, Kansas, and after being turned away from a Kansas college because he was black, he was accepted at Iowa State University where he got his bachelor’s and master’s degrees.  He was on faculty there until Booker T. Washington convinced him to go to Tuskegee Institute where he spent the rest of his career.

But Carver never forgot the Neosho Colored School where his education began in a crowded space, only    16’ X 24’, with as many as 60 students enrolled in a term.  Years later, Carver, who started college wanting to be an artist, sketched a drawing of how he remembered the school.

When the bank repossessed the site of the former Neosho Colored School in 2004, it offered to donate the property to the George Washington Carver National Monument.  But federal legislation confines the monument’s ownership to the Carver birth site only.  So, the bank donated the property to the Carver Birthplace Association, the monument’s friends group. 

On it sat a dilapidated house.

"It was a slum lord's rental house for decades and decades and decades," said Mailes.

The Carver Birthplace Association needed to decide what to do with the property.

"CBA said, 'what are we going to do with this junky house?'" said Mailes.  "And somebody said, 'well, let's tear it down, we'll make a park.'  Literally, we had a demolition crew with bulldozers, backhoes and what have you, scheduled  for the next week, and the Park Service said, 'before you do that, let's just examine the property.'  And they came down, and within a few hours they determined this IS the school.  We were going to knock it down!  Because nobody had any idea that THAT was the Neosho Colored School."

Al O’Bright, a National Park Service historical architect based in St. Louis, made the discovery.  According to Mailes, O’Bright described it as the greatest discovery of his career.

A crew from HistoriCorps spent three weeks in 2016 stripping away layers of cheap material that had been added to the structure over the years and removing an addition to the back.  And then they were done, and it was nothing short of breathtaking.

"It was an exciting time when we finished that three-week project, and we were able to take Carver's drawing and set it side by side with what we've got," Mailes said.

The uncovered schoolhouse and Carver’s drawing were remarkably identical.  Only a chimney in Carver's original drawing wasn't there, but the CBA determined that one had existed.  The school would have had a wood stove for heat.

There was likely a privey in the backyard, Mailes said, and there would have been an open area where the children played--all except for Carver.

"Those who went to school with Carver, back in the 40s, 50s, 60s, they interviewed them for historical purposes, they would say at recess time that Carver would run over to the Watkins' and do some laundry.  Mariah didn't let him live there free.  She took in laundry and altering and all sorts of things, and he worked his way through, so he'd run over there and work at his chores and then when school resumed he'd run back and come to class," said Mailes.

The CBA has been working to raise money to restore the school, which taught black students ranging in age from five to 26, from 1872 to 1891.  So far they’ve moved the structure into the backyard, poured a concrete foundation (since a dry stacked native rock foundation had crumbled and settled into the ground) and moved the school back onto its original footprint.  They've replicated the bracketed chimney, which originally sat on a wooden cabinet.  Since the original design wasn't structurally sound, they plan to  surround a sturdy base with a faux cabinet.  They’ve also done a lot of work to make the building itself structurally sound and will soon put a new roof on it.  The National Park Service has put up interpretive signs, and visitors can tune to 88.5 FM to hear the story of Carver and the Neosho Colored School.  Mailes thinks another $100,000 will allow CBA to finish the project.  It's also been listed on the National Register of Historic Places. 

And ultimately, Mailes said, "we hope that it, as much as possible, looks like what it did the day young Carver walked here and encountered it for the first time..  And it's our dream to, in partnership with the Park Service at the George Washington Carver National Monument,  to provide interpretive programs to the public and to have school children from all around the area come."

He hopes they can finish the project by 2022—the 150th anniversary of the Neosho Colored School.  The dream is that one day the CBA will also be able to acquire what used to be the Watkins property and put an interpretive center on that site.