Once a slave, then a scientist

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July 26th, 2011

Omaha, NE – He was born into slavery, and became one of the country’s leading scientific minds. The life and contributions of George Washington Carver are now on display at the Durham Western Heritage Museum.

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George Washington Carver became world-renowned as a scientist for the everyman. He traveled around the country promoting sustainable farming, and versatile use of everyday items. (Photo credit Durham Museum)

“This individual was really dynamic. He was truly a renaissance person,” said Shawna Forsberg, the head of marketing at the Durham, as she led me on a tour of the George Washington Carver exhibit. On loan from the Chicago Field Museum, the Durham is readying it for opening day on Saturday.

With video narratives playing in the background, the exhibit tells the story of a truly remarkable figure.

“To start out as a slave and become one of the world’s foremost scientists,” Forsberg said, “is just really a remarkable journey.”

Carver was born into slavery in Missouri. As a baby, he and his mother were kidnapped. The family’s master hired a man to track them down, but he only recovered one-week-old George. Moses Carver raised George as his own, and encouraged him to develop what soon became clear was a curious and deeply intelligent mind.

Carver was also a talented artist and musician, who even created embroidered items, also on display at the Durham exhibit. (Photo credit Durham Museum)

“He was involved in music and painting,” Forsberg said, “and really explored a lot of things in his lifetime.” The exhibit includes artifacts from many of Carver’s creative explorations, including his old guitar. Forsberg said it focuses a large portion on Carver’s early, formative years, and paints a personal picture of the man, who ultimately became world-renowned as a scientist for the everyman.

Carver was “one of the leaders of the green movement before there was a green movement,” Forsberg said. While Carver might be most remembered as the man who invented peanut butter, that’s actually a myth. Carver never invented peanut butter, but he did encourage sustainable farming of peanuts, as well as soybeans, as an alternative to over-produced cotton. He wanted poor farmers to harvest crops they could not only sell, but could also eat. And he created over 300 products using the versatile legume.

Carver also traveled around the country with a wagon-full of everyday items – from canned fruits to live chickens – teaching ways to use them and live sustainably. It was known as the Jessup Wagon, and Forsberg pointed out a similar setup to what Carver might have used that’s been installed in the Museum, stocked with props of mini science experiments, fruit, books and flowers.

“It gives a good idea of how these things would be utilized,” Forsberg said. “If you think about how slavery was still going on, he was a brave guy to go out and share his knowledge. He overcame a lot of barriers.”

The George Washington Carver exhibit opens at the Durham Museum on Saturday, and runs through the end of October. The Museum will host a series of events throughout the exhibit, including an interactive science fair, Innovation Station, which kicks off August 6th.

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