Memory of Carver remains

by Erin Haller

Inside a small shack near campus, he studied by the light of an oil lamp, did students’ laundry to pay tuition and made a bed on the floor.

Such was the college life of one of Simpson’s most celebrated students – George Washington Carver. Carver’s brief stay at Simpson in 1890-91 made leaps and bounds for blacks in its day.

“It was very rare at the time for blacks to be attending college anywhere. But Carver was a very bright boy,” said Joe Walt, professor emeritus of history, whose history of Simpson College, “Beneath the Whispering Maples,” was published in 1995. “For blacks at the time, it was a question of means.”

In the midst of Black History Month, Simpson College, along with the rest of the nation, takes a deeper look at its own black history, what happened a century ago, 50 years ago and what is happening today. Black History Month goes beyond the struggles of minorities into everyday efforts to overcome segregation.

Carver had attended high school with the help of a couple in Winterset. The fact that he went to high school made getting into college a possibility.

Walt said that, despite the segregation of the time, Carver was welcomed into the Simpson community. Walt said he surely ran into some racism, but “he met up with so many people who liked him.”

“He was accepted by the students but in a strange way,” said Walt. “He was older, about 24, so there was an element of respect. They called him ‘Mr. Carver.’ He didn’t hobnob with the students very much, but they enjoyed his company.”

Carver, too, took a great deal from his months at Simpson.

“That college was paradise to me,” he wrote to Simpson President John Gross in 1941. “I owe to Simpson College my real beginning in life.”

Carver arrived at Simpson in the fall of 1890, weary from the 25-mile walk from Winterset, where he had been living and working. He was welcomed as a student by the college registrar and by President Edmund Holmes.

“Carver was not the first black student to attend Simpson. There were very few, but he was not the first,” said Walt.

Bishop Matthew Simpson, the college’s namesake, was a leading abolitionist. There was also a recognizable presence of blacks at the time. According to Walt, Indianola had once been a stop on the Underground Railroad prior to the Civil War that was located near the intersection of today’s Highway 65/69 and Highway 92. After the war, many blacks left Missouri to settle in Iowa.

“There was a feeling of sympathy toward blacks in the area,” Walt said. But that was not necessarily what brought Carver to Simpson or kept him here. “He may not have related much to the black community. The black population was mostly uneducated.”

Carver felt welcomed into the Simpson community and enjoyed his brief time on campus. One student, John P. Morley, wrote “the entire college community accepted him in full equality.”

He opened a laundry and provided his services to students as well as many others from town. Holmes made an appeal to students to take their business to Carver so that he might be able to stay at Simpson.

“Morley helped organize the kids to get their laundry to Carver,” said Walt. “He was very fond of Carver.”

He was an active member of the college community, involving himself in baseball, YMCA and the literary society. Carver thrived at Simpson both academically and socially.

He fell in love with art, but his art instructor, Etta Budd, felt that he would do more for himself, and his race, in science.

In 1891, Carver followed Budd’s advice, packed up his small collection of belongings and moved to Iowa State to study agricultural science.

He was slow to adjust to life at a larger college and missed what Walt called the “comfort and warmth” of Simpson. Some at Iowa State were slow to accept his presence on campus. For a short time, he was not allowed to eat in the dining hall.

He earned his bachelor and master’s degrees at Iowa State and went on to teach at Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute. He established himself as a scientist, creating hundreds of products from peanuts, sweet potatoes and other plants. He made many improvements in the field of agriculture.

Carver never forgot his months at Simpson that provided him with many of his warmest memories.

“He remembers Simpson with such affection,” said Walt. “Maybe even too fondly.”

Prior to his 1941 commencement speech at Simpson, Carver Gross, “At Simpson College, the kind of people there made me believe I was a human being.”

Carver’s brief time at Simpson created his legacy at the college. Carver Science Center, dedicated in 1956, stands as a memorial to the man who spent less than a year at Simpson.

The Carver Lecture is delivered on campus annually. There was a Carver scholarship available for a short time. There is a memorial to Carver in what students call the “Circle of Knowledge” outside of Cowles.

“The college was sometimes criticized for perhaps overdoing the fact that Carver attended Simpson,” said Walt. “But, over the years, Simpson has done fairly well in attracting African American students. It’s during Black History Month that you can say that with some sense of pride.”

Carver was not the first or the last black to walk the grounds of Simpson College. But his lifetime achievements helped pave the way for other blacks to make their way into Simpson and elsewhere in the United States.

His legacy is a chapter in black history that includes the many others who spent their college years at Simpson and who also made a lasting impression on Simpson’s black history.

Next week: A look at a black alumnus who made a lasting impression on the Simpson community.