Black History, Southern Soils and A Franklin County Slave

by Fred First

A few weeks back, while driving from Floyd to a Moneta destination just the other side of Smith Mountain Lake, I passed a sign that made me do a double-take. It read “Birthplace of Booker T. Washington.” A short distance later was a historical marker. I sped past it without stopping, and did the same at the entrance into the national monument dedicated to this individual–a historic figure whose name I had heard so often in my home state, I just assumed he was an Alabamian.

“Isn’t that the peanut guy”? my wife asked when I told her of my surprise at this discovery.

“No, that’s–what’s his name, I think.” In this admission, I extended the depths of my ignorance. I assigned it to myself to fill this gap in my historical knowledge of a famous (and for me, forgotten) black American and the other one we confused him with.

Booker T. Washington was born in Franklin County in 1856, the son of a black slave mother and unknown white father. He spent most of his first decade in a mining town in West Virginia, and worked in the salt and coal mines as early as age 9. The wife of the mine owner saw something special in the young boy and arranged for him to enter Hampton Agricultural Institute in 1872. Nine years later, at the age of 25, he became the first president of the new Tuskeegee Normal School for Colored Teachers (in southern Alabama), with a single shanty to house the school and a budget of $2000.

Under Washington’s leadership, Tuskeegee offered academic–but chiefly practical–education for farming, carpentry, brick-making, shoemaking, printing and cabinetmaking. It was his conviction that the negro population could best become assimilated into southern society by what its citizens would, with education, be able to contribute. He considered that making a living and acquiring property were more important that gaining (back) the right to vote.

Southern blacks had, as a result of the Civil War, gained the right to vote, but then many had subsequently lost those rights due to the machinations of southern legislatures and the “Jim Crow” laws that, until 1964, prevented African Americans from full rights as citizens under the law.

Booker T. Washington resisted the movements of more militant and aggressive proponents of equal rights, and was considered by some as a white appeaser. His moderate stance, people skills and eloquence gained him favor with several presidents and corporate magnates of the day, who contributed financially to Tuskeegee’s growth.

But perhaps the single greatest decision Booker T. Washington made for the benefit of Tuskeegee and the south in general was to bring onto the faculty the “peanut guy”—George Washington Carver—in 1896.

Carver, also a slave at birth in 1864, apparently had the same “charisma” and obvious potential as Washington, and was granted an early education. While he was gifted in music and art, his passion even as a child was plants. His purpose in life became to serve the soil, and southerners, black and white, through agricultural discovery and application.

Carver recognized the toll that generations of cotton planting had taken on southern soils, leaving many farmers as impoverished as the ground they worked. Carver was the first to advocate for crop rotation, and he promoted nitrogen-building plants like peanuts and soybeans to replace bowl weevil-devastated cotton and rebuild the south, from the ground up.

But farmers could not find an adequate market for the abundance of these alternative crops they were able to grow using Carver’s methods. He rose to the challenge, during 47 years as head of the Agriculture Department at Tuskeegee, to create new food and non-food products that used soybeans, peanuts, sweet potatoes and pecans.

Dubbed by Time Magazine in 1941 as the “Black Leonardo” he created more than 300 uses for peanuts, 100 for sweet potatoes, and about 75 for pecans. From all of these inventions and discoveries, he applied for only three patents. The epitaph on his grave explains: “He could have added fortune to fame, but caring for neither, he found happiness and honor in being helpful to the world.”

Carver is buried next to Booker T. Washington at Tuskeegee. And it turns out, I spent much of my free time at Auburn University hunting flowering plants, salamanders and solitude in Tuskeegee National Forest. So at times I was not five miles from the final resting place of these two great men that, in the white schools of the day, were never given much study.

The Booker T. Washington National Monument at his tobacco-farm birthplace is located 16 miles from Rocky Mount on VA 122. I promise–next time, I’ll stop and spend some time there.

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