Hidden along an undulating road near the small town of Diamond in the far southwest corner of Missouri is an unexpected gem of the United States National Park Service, a diamond in the rough that celebrates the amazingly diverse and influential life of the first African-American to have a national monument dedicated to him – George Washington Carver. The national monument, which consists of a natural trail and museum on the 240 acres where Carver spent his early childhood years, was created by an act of Congress in 1943 and fully dedicated in 1953. On these grounds, in these exhibits, and in the accompanying archive (which contains over 3000 historical documents and artifacts), visitors and scholars are better able to understand the remarkable man, known at times as “the plant doctor” and more commonly as “the peanut man,” whose insatiable curiosity and desire to help others drove him to become world famous during his life and long after his death in 1943. The monument highlights the range of stories that can be told through the life of just one man, particularly when these stories are woven into both local and national fabrics.
Upon arrival to the park, visitors are drawn to the mile-long Carver trail that leads them along well-constructed boardwalks and paths through the wooded landscape. In these woods, a young George was able to fertilize and cultivate the insatiable curiosity that allowed him to understand the verdant section of his world, which he said was God’s “unlimited broadcasting station.” This is also where the “The Boy Carver” statue by Robert Amendola is located. The trail then brings visitors out of the woods and back to the museum, where the rest of Carver’s story is told. During most of the school year, visitors will often find themselves in the company of children, since 10,000-12,000 area students yearly visit the park as part of field trips. It is in these walls that visitors can begin to understand what events and influences helped Carver to become the “scientist, educator, humanitarian” who is celebrated throughout the monument.
Inside the museum, Carver’s story is told through exhibits that lead the visitor through important events of his life. The story begins at Carver’s childhood: his traumatic early years, his love of nature, and his determination to seek an education in a time where such a thing was extremely difficult for an African-American. A map display shows how far Carver was willing to go to obtain that education. As a child, he walked the ten miles from his farm to the nearby town of Neosho, Missouri, where he began his formal education. The museum chronicles his journeys through southern Missouri, into Kansas, and finally into Iowa, where he attended Simpson College and eventually what is now known as Iowa State University, where he was the only African-American student and later the first faculty member. After receiving his master’s degree, he headed south into Alabama, where he began his important work at the new Tuskegee Institute, which had been established by Booker T. Washington.
His work at Tuskegee is celebrated at the museum though a series of exhibits and in classrooms where visitors of all ages are better able to understand how his work on several crops, not just the peanut for which he is best known. In addition, the exhibits demonstrate how Carver was able to use his understanding of crops and people to establish a basic farm extension service (through the “Jesup wagon”) and to suggest additional uses for the products he recommended be planted for the rejuvenation of the soil – in fact, he claimed to have discovered over 300 uses for peanuts alone. The museum also chronicles the rise of Dr. Carver from an innovative scientist to a world-famous celebrity who testified before Congress in 1921, was interviewed on nationwide radio programs, and corresponded with other famous men, such as Henry Ford and Mahatma Gandhi.
Finally, the museum includes examples of Carver’s views and philosophies, which cover a range of topics. On nature, Carver said, “if a person walks in the woods and listens carefully, he can learn more than what is in books, for they speak with the voice of God.” About conservation, he asserted, “take care of the waste on the farm and turn it into useful channels’ should be the slogan of every farm.” On race relations, he believed that “we are brothers, all of us, no matter what race or color or condition; children of the same Heavenly Father. We rise together or we fall together.” On the value of working with a purpose, he stated, “no individual has any right to come into this world and go out of it without leaving behind him distinct and legitimate reasons for having passed through it.” Carver’s life story, as presented in the museum, provides a powerful context for these views.
While the story of George Washington Carver’s life and accomplishments is remarkable and of great interest to visitors, a visit to southwestern Missouri would not be as fulfilling of an adventure without the efforts of those who work at and support the monument – a combination of National Parks rangers, local volunteers, and the members of the Carver Birthplace Association. Under the guidance of the rangers and the assistance of the volunteers, various educational tours of the grounds are held, scholars are given access to the archival materials housed there, and community outreach projects are undertaken. Some examples of community outreach projects at the park include: the “Art and Essay” contest for local fourth graders, which is held in conjunction with Black History Month; the Junior Rangers program, which is geared for children ages 10-12; “Carver Day” in mid-July, which celebrates the establishment of the monument in 1943; “Prairie Day” in September, which emphasizes the type of prairie life that young George would have experienced in the 1880s; and a “Holiday Open House” in mid-December that encourages visitors to see the beauty of the prairie setting in wintertime. Through these diverse programs, Carver’s life and legacy are brought into discourse with the lives and perspectives of community members, challenging common perceptions of monuments and memorial sites as somewhat removed from daily experience in the present.
The Carver Birthplace Association, which was created in the early 1940s to urge Congress to create the national monument, serves as an additional outreach vehicle. In addition to operating the bookstore on the monument grounds, they also work to continue Carver’s work by providing scholarships to students in the region who wish to study in academic interests Carver pursued. Since he studied a wide range of topics in areas, such as (but not limited to) biology, agriculture, and conservation, the diversity of potential recipients is noteworthy. To fund these scholarships, the Association holds an annual Commemorative Dinner each January. Since the exact birthdate for Carver is unknown, the dinner is held in January to remember his death in January 1943.
Some trips allow us to witness an important historical site, while others allow us to see a scenic landscape. Some trips allow us to be an active participant in the retelling of the past, while others allow us to study the contributions of an amazing person to the world. Finally, some trips are suitable for kids, while others are of interest only to adults. By visiting the gem that is the George Washington Carver national monument, the full range of these possibilities is available for people of all ages. Carver would have especially appreciated that all can find something at his memorial. He once stated, “how far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving and tolerant of the weak and strong. Because someday in your life you will have been all of these.” At the national monument that bears his name, this is manifested in the inclusion of all not just as audience members, but also as participants in the ongoing continuation and shaping of the story of a fascinating American.