“Education is the key to unlock the golden door of freedom” – George Washington Carver
February is Black History Month, so the list of books for February features Black Scientists and Inventors. Originally, I had intended to highlight a book about a lesser-known Black scientist, but when I found Cheryl Harness’ The Groundbreaking Chance-Taking Life of George Washington Carver and Science and Invention in America, my plans changed.
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As a child I had wonderful social studies teachers who made history real because they taught so much like Ms. Harness writes. Her books could almost have began, “Once upon a time…..” because everything came alive and unfolded like a wonderful story. And the illustrations are truly “the icing on the cake.”
Three Young Pilgrims was the first of Ms. Harness’ books I fell in love with. At that time, in addition to being a school librarian, I was teaching American literature to high school students, most of whom had previously failed the class. As I read them the book, and we shared the illustrations, the students came to understand the pilgrims’ sacrifices, probably for the first time. The cut-away of the Mayflower showing the cramped living quarters helped students to visualize the harsh reality of this incredible trip. And so I began purchasing all of Ms. Harness’ books for the library and helping social studies teachers understand the ways her books could help their students appreciate our country’s history in a very unique way.
George Washington Carver’s story begins in 1855 when Moses Carver and his wife Susan, Missouri farmers, purchased Mary, a 13-year-old slave. George later wrote that he was born “about 2 weeks before the war closed,” (April, 1865) but the exact date is not known.
Soon afterwards, George, his mother and his sister were taken to Arkansas by outlaws. Although a friend of Moses Carver searched, only George, almost dead with whooping cough, was found and returned home to be raised with “Carver” for a last name. When the Civil War ended and the slaves were freed, George and his older brother Jim were raised as the Carver’s foster sons.
Because George was a sickly child, he helped his foster mother with household chores instead of working in the fields. However, one outdoor chore George loved was working in the garden, and he was interested in everything that lived there.
Being black, the Carver boys were unable to attend the neighborhood school, but when George was 12, his education began at a school for black students in Neosho, Missouri, 8 miles from the Carver’s farm. George never lived with his foster family again, and about a year later he headed west for Kansas. In 1886, George became a homesteader, but following the “blizzard of ‘88,” he moved to Iowa where he enrolled at Simpson College and excelled in art. However, George left there to become the first black student, and later the first black graduate, of what is now Iowa State University. Following graduation, George headed for Tuskegee, Alabama.
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At Tuskegee, George was head of the institute’s research and agriculture departments and also managed “the school’s fields, pastures, orchards, barns and beehives, sheep, chickens, dairy cows, pigs and other livestock.” In addition, George also produced agricultural pamphlets for farmers.
George died in 1943 as America was fighting World War II. Buried in Tuskegee near his friend Booker T. Washington, George’s headstone reads: “He could have added fortune to fame, but caring for neither, he found happiness and honor in being helpful to the world.”
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Ms. Harness’ book on George Washington Carver, however, is so much more than a biography—it is a history of the world and many of the world’s significant people during the lifetime of this incredible man. The bottom of each page features a wonderful timeline that corresponds to the dates of the written information on that page. The timeline features hard facts (April 18, 1906-San Francisco’s terrible earthquake) and also interesting trivia. Did you know that M & M’s were invented in 1941, that Dr. Pepper was first introduced in 1886, that the pogo stick was invented in 1919 or that Kleenex was invented in 1924?
Before I wrote this article, I asked Cheryl Harness if there is anything she would like to emphasize about George, and she replied that she wants to make sure everyone understands Dr. Carver’s explanation of his endeavors: “Would it surprise you…if I say that I have not been doing many different things? All these years I have been doing one thing…seeking Truth. That is what the scientist is seeking. That is what the artist is seeking; his writings, his music, his pictures are just expressions of his soul in his search for Truth.”
Ms. Harness continued: “Haven’t you found that once in a while, our writing discipline is rewarded by finding oneself typing words that are smarter than you know yourself to be? That’s how it was for me when I typed out ‘Catch George’s vision: Let this picture play on the theater of your mind: The whole human race living well together on Earth, a blue-green oasis amidst the stars’.”
Do yourself a favor and learn more about Cheryl Harness at http://www.cherylharness.com/. Let her make history come alive for you, too.