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

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

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

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


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.


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 collegelevel textbooks weighing down my shelves have Carver in their indexes, I helped my older son, on two different occasions during his elementary school career, complete class projects on Carver. It is as if the legacy of Carver has been imprisoned in the countless shoebox dioramas that continue to dramatize his 105 ways of preparing the peanut.

Serious historians have a hard time knowing what to make of Carver. For a while he served as a contributionist hero, proof-in-the-flesh that racist theories of black inferiority could not withstand close scrutiny. For much of the twentieth century, many saw Carver, as Time magazine referred to him in 1941 (in reference to his skill as a painter as well as his other capabilities and achievements), as a “Black Leonardo.” But such contributionist heroes are less useful to a nation transformed by the modern civil rights movement—except, perhaps, to children in elementary school. Thus, we are left with Carver the “Peanut Man,” whose apparent chief claim to fame was his advocacy for the lowly goober—not only as a nitrogen-fixing alternative to the destructiveness of southern cotton culture but also as a source, like Henry Ford’s beloved soybean, of all sorts of useful chemurgical by-products. And as we have come to understand more fully the pathologies that ate away at the southern agricultural economy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it has become only too easy to depict Carver’s enthusiasm for the peanut as the functional equivalent of Michael Dukakis’s infamous suggestion in the heat of the 1988 Iowa caucus that the crisis of the family farm might be solved by planting Belgian endive.

And yet, as Mark Hersey makes clear in this powerful new study, much has been lost in the marginalization of Carver. Hersey’s chief claim—and it is at once a compelling and subtle one—is that we need to take Carver seriously as a central figure in the American environmental tradition. “My . . .

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