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that sweet potatoes are extremely high in vitamin A and fairly high in vitamin C as well (not to mention high- quality, fiber-rich carbohydrate).

But there was a double-edged problem. First, people must be convinced that these crops were both nutritious and delicious. Second, they needed to be able to make money on what they planted. In other words, if the Southern farmer was going to plant legumes and sweet potatoes, there needed to be commercial demand. Carver set to work.

Carver knew that

the crops he recommended would have to be not only pleasing to the soils, but pleasing to the palate as well. Most families had always planted a few “goobers” here and there next to fence posts as treats for their children and sometimes as feed for livestock. Carver wanted to convince them that legumes could be a larger part of their diets, so he used the cooking skills he’d developed over decades to create over 100 ways to prepare peanuts for consumption—including dishes as wide-ranging as mock chicken and desserts. He also created 18 recipes using the cowpea.

Still, Carver knew

farmers were in business to make money. He needed to create a commercial demand for these crops, and toward this end, he worked tire- lessly. Carver built a labo- ratory wholly created with

materials salvaged from the garbage heap. (Carver and his students punched holes in tin to make graders, found reeds to use as makeshift pipettes, and reclaimed a cracked china bowl for use as a mortar.) In this lab, Carver broke plants down into their component parts to discover industrial applications. He called this study “syn- thetics,” and he was quite successful. (It’s ironic, really, that the word synthetic used to have such a progressive feel to it; now it is virtually synonymous with fake.) In his lab, Carver created hundreds of products from the peanut. He created (merely for example) milk,

64 Winter/Spring 2012

butter, meal, cold drinks, oil (cooking, salad, and indus- trial), lotions, face creams, and face powder. From the sweet potato, he created laundry starch that could be made not only commercially but also at home (theoreti- cally improving the bearing of all those who used it). Carver not only created new products; he also worked to stimulate a demand for them. In this last effort—stimulating demand—Carver was helped along by the first World War, which brought the flow of German chemicals, fertilizers, and dyes to an abrupt halt. The head of one dye producer, upon learning of Carver’s work, sent him a blank check indicating that Carver could come to work for his company and become a wealthy man. Carver declined that offer and many similar offers over the years (includ- ing a $100,000-per-year offer from Thomas Edison, which would be over $1 million dollars today). In fact, Carver’s wish was for enterprising people to take his ideas and develop them; he never profited from his inventions and rarely even took a patent. Carver rarely profited financially from any of his tireless effort. He was hired at Tuskegee for a salary of $125 per month, and that was his wage for nearly 40 years until he died. Carver was hard-pressed to even find time to cash his paychecks (which confounded Tuskegee’s bookkeepers). Instead, his habit was to stash them into books or boxes and to offer them up when hard-working students needed assistance or when Booker T. Washington himself told Carver of the school’s need. When he died, Carver had over $30,000 in the bank, and he donated that money back to Tuskegee.

Sweet Potato

Seeds of Knowledge

Carver’s mission was clear, and he had no split loyalties: He desired to improve the lives of African Americans. This, of course, was the mission of Tuskegee itself, and Booker T. Washington sought to make it the mission of Tuskegee graduates as well. During commencement exercises, Washington would say things like “Go back to the place where you came from and work. Don’t waste too much time looking for a paying job. If you can’t get pay, ask for the privilege of working for nothing.” In that spirit, many “little Tuskegees” cropped up in small settle-

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