Registering the Registry 2019: George Washington Carver at Tuskegee Institute (1937)
Welcome back to Registering the Registry, where we consider and review the films inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry by merit of their cultural, historical, and aesthetic qualities! More of the 2019 class this week, as we contemplate the short actuality of “George Washington Carver at Tuskegee Institute”!
(Originally published August 30th, 2020)
Let’s stick with last week’s discussion on color photography just a while longer! In 1935, same year Technicolor’s three-strip process broke into the mainstream with Becky Sharp, Eastman Kodak introduced Kodachrome, one of the earliest successful consumer-grade color filmstocks for 16mm cameras. Though early batches were generally unstable and prone to deterioration and fading, by 1937 the company’s processes improved to the point where the brand became both an industry standard for professionals in still photography, and an accessible option for amateur filmmakers. With those outside the industry’s major centers now able to film and develop their own movies, the potential for personal projects capturing little but important moments swings wide open. For instance, in today’s short reel of footage, “George Washington Carver at Tuskegee Institute,” we find Kalamazoo-based African-American surgeon Dr. Cornelius Allen Alexander invited to the institute’s grounds by Dr. Austin Curtis, then-assistant to noted botanist and educator George Washington Carver, for the express purpose of filming his partner and mentor at work in his lab and about campus grounds. As Alexander kept his results stored in a dark, dry place for many decades before offering them to the George Washington Carver National Monument for long-term preservation, we are nowadays afforded a simple look back into the past, at a few moments in the life of a celebrated American, and a glimpse at campus life in a historically black college of his day. Keen how we can link two concurrent yet seemingly completely unrelated works in this way, huh?
(My thanks to Heidi Holmstrom of Unwritten-Record for their write-up on the film’s context. I’d honestly thought the footage here was probably unused b-roll for a professional newsreel prior to reading the work here — though if you take a look at the film below, and try to imagine an old-timey announcer segueing from Carver to the wonders of science and community at Tuskegee Institute, it could easily play as such with the right script over its silent self.)
So, Carver. Not a doctor as he was so often called, holder of a mere three patents, far more than just the Peanut Man, although saying “George Washington Carver was more than the peanuts, you know!” is cliché a thing to say as “George Washington Carver WAS the Peanut Man!” by this point. Born just before slavery transitioned from an institution of the private landowner to an institution of the prison system, Carver’s early life was defined by constant movement from foster home to foster home after the loss of his real mother to thieving raiders, and a constant pursuit of knowledge through his own study and whatever formal education he could find. An adept homesteader in years when no school would accept him, and later a student of Simpson College and Iowa State, Carver made enough of a name for himself as a young man to attract the attentions of Booker T. Washington, the recently appointed president of the young Tuskegee Institute, who offered the flourishing artist and botanist a combination teaching/administrative position, which Carver would hold in some capacity (though mostly teaching after bad early administrative experiences) from 1896 to his death in 1943. While we nowadays best know the man for brief tidbits about peanuts during elementary and middle school Civil Rights history units on notable African-Americans, his on-the-ground work with students attempting to lift themselves from impoverished farming and locals caught within sharecropping schemes was important for adding another voice to the national agricultural conversation in support of sustainability and economical living.
None of Carver’s ideas or proposals were inherently revolutionary during the early 20th century — if farmers didn’t know the importance of crop rotation to avoid leeching the land’s nutrients and relying on your own produce to keep personal costs down since time immemorial, we wouldn’t have very well seen an agricultural revolution and a shift to modern living. Problem was, Carver’s audience of students and farmers knew and understood these principles, but worked under economic conditions that demanded maximum production of soil-damaging cotton at all times, on white-owned lands which returned paltry profits for their labors and trained them into reliance on the owners, which disincentivized the adoptions of techniques pursuant of anything beyond base survival. Through his work in the classroom and his travelling Jesup wagon, his research with a wide variety of staple crops including peanuts, sweet potatoes, soybeans, tomatoes, etc., and his 115 practical bulletins, Carver did not invent new uses for the peanut overnight or suddenly open poor farmers’ eyes to knowledge they never possessed. What he DID was speak to his audience on their own level, put important information into simple, easily-parsed language, and explain the whys behind his techniques and the sheer breadth of their benefits alike. One may know the peanut as a healthy, reliable crop, and never consider it worth the while compared to the cotton which has consumed their entire life; in reading Carver’s bulletin on peanuts and learning in more detail about how the peanut enriches the land, how it is nutritionally beneficial, how it may be used as a cheaper alternative to more conventional yet expensive foodstuffs for in excess of 100 common meals, one may make the connection necessary to use the peanut as one of many little tricks to scrape together a better life. Many of these techniques never quite achieved widespread adoption, as Carver’s (often self-admittedly borrowed, though frequently his own discoveries) recipes were meant as economical workarounds rather than superior alternatives, useful to the hard-working farmer, not the comfortable consumer. In view of a gradual (too gradual given the modern situation’s reversal, but still) trend towards sustainable farming and diversified diets for laborers, it is still worth counting Carter’s contributions towards the effort as plenty worthwhile, even before his national fame.
We nowadays know Carver as the Peanut Man thanks to a 1921 presentation before the House Ways and Means Committee in favor of a peanut tariff, one which, going by its Wikipedia page, ultimately did more harm than good as tariffs are wont to do. Regardless, Carver’s eloquent and interesting presentation kept the committee enraptured far beyond his initially allotted time, and a combination of this and his famously, unusually high-pitched voice caught the eyes and ears of journalists who rapidly inflated him into one of the country’s most prominent celebrity scientists. These claims gave rise to ludicrous notions like Carver as a genius whose every new use of the peanut would revolutionize this or that industry, casting him as a lone figure whose unique brilliance would open the way to a whole new way of living, all on the back of an unassuming legume. Carver, not exactly the public-facing kind, did accept and embrace this newfound fame and the misconceptions that came with it all the same, as it enabled him to extend the reach of his ideas, educate regarding botany and sustainable farming with a far broader platform, and promote the efforts of the Tuskegee Institute nationwide. It’s something of a shame, I think, how the lingering legacy of his life’s work is factoids regarding 300+ uses for peanuts instead of the actual good work of scientific communication to populations who would otherwise receive less or none, to the point of an otherwise socially conscious program like The Proud Family using his person as fodder for a peanut-obsessed mad scientist while repeating the inaccuracies standing as my most prominent knowledge about him prior to doubling down on reading for this article. Even if they were useful fabrications which helped advance Carver’s work during his lifetime, their prominence hasn’t exactly done much for the layman’s understanding of the man. Fame’s a fickle thing, they often say, and equally often the luster and image it projects lingers far readier than the actual person beneath it all. You and I know now, though, so why don’t we take a look at the film proper?
Interesting to note: Dr. C. Allen Alexander’s footage adheres closely to how Carver preferred his person be presented, as a notable figure but ultimately of second concern to the educational institute he served. Images of Carver, his lab and quarters, and his projects comprise only around half the reel’s twelve-minute runtime, and pose him as an ordinary staffer rather than a scientific genius. Understandable for something filming actualities, but while the majority of his time before the camera could and probably would be spent tinkering with test tubes and beakers and peeled-apart plant roots in a professional production interested in spreading the legacy, Alexander finds interest in Carver at his desk, meeting with colleagues, lingering with the students, tending his garden, and showing off his painterly endeavors in far greater measure. The one shot of Carver at work in his laboratory includes an enormous beaker in the foreground, reflecting a smaller, distorted Carver within its confines. Though I’m almost certain my read here is based in what I bring to the material and not anything Alexander intended to imply, it makes a fitting metaphor for how the man was treated: a bright, passionate, intelligent man elevated for one interesting trait amongst a myriad collection of interests and accomplishments, and by elevation effectively stuffed into a bottle, reproduced in idealized whole, yet smaller and less true than the real deal standing only a few feet away. There is, I find, more honesty regarding who Alexander likely found during his filming in the image of the man knitting at his desk or posing with his vegetation studies in paint and oil than in the bubbled image of the lone scientist made so popular throughout the decades. Isn’t it wonderful how the camera’s eye enables the capture of such accidentally profound images by even the most inexperienced operator?
In the footage of Tuskegee’s grounds, staff, and students itself, we find perhaps the more interesting half of this film. A curated day in the life about and around one of the country’s highest profile black educational centers, focused on its directors in their offices, its students on their daily rounds, its marching band on a regular performance, its athletes during a routine football game. As noted above, I initially imagined this footage as part of some professional presentation on the university, complete with unrecorded narration extolling the virtues of the institute as a model for all others to follow, and if I press myself to imagine further while watching, I can practically hear the observations on quality student life and opportunities for young African-Americans. In silence, however, and in the hands of an amateur, it becomes a rather uncomplicated, ordinary look at life on the campus. Certainly one aware of its legacy and importance, as spoken to by the inclusion of shots aimed at the statue of Booker T. Washington lifting a veil of ignorance from his people, but one nevertheless rooted in an average moment and the experience of standing amidst it all, watching whoever and whatever is interesting at the time. This is the institute which housed the by-then famous “Doctor” Carver, which would in a few years play host to the Tuskegee Airmen, which was already five years deep into the unthinkable atrocity of the syphilis experiment, and the majority of what Curtis films is campus life. Someone in my house walked in halfway through the film and wondered at how it came from the 30s, for it matched their impressions of ordinary collegiate images from the 60s right until the football game came in, which should speak to the effectiveness of finding commonality in just shooting whatever peaks your interest. The unimportant will always, inevitably seem interesting and worth study to someone someday.
Is it a terribly profound slice of life in terms of what it captures or how it’s built? Probably not, no. I’m a fan of speaking in breathless, exalting terms about the little things when given the chance, so I’ll scratch my wonk however I like with the Carver and Tuskegee footage. Interesting as a document of Carver’s later days in a medium he rarely approached, and pretty damned important for providing a living image of the Institute during days when its official policy was no commercial footage on its grounds, but ultimately important and vital for its ordinariness, its lack of overwhelming message or sweeping insight into anything more than, “This was a man, this is where he lived, and he and it were no different than anything you’ve known.” Course, to the right mind, there’s no more enduring or critical statement one can draw from a work of art than the existence of someone who lived and breathed and thrived same as you or I regardless their background or importance. All the context provided above, the blitzing outline of Carver’s life and accomplishments, the bemoaning his status as trivially mythic figure over actual man — I hope it all impresses upon you the reader that however I’m prone to expressing my own somewhat flighty idiom, “George Washington Carver at Tuskegee Institute” is worth a chunk of your time as a Kodachrome snap of an important American, whose life and legacy deserve some consideration beyond what childhood textbooks deem worthy of inclusion. If our journey through the Registry can inspire historical exploration for any figure, important or otherwise, then I’ll consider this torturously wandering final paragraph worth the editing headache.
Thanks once more for tolerating my nonsense! Next week, we join George Cukor in 1944 as he remakes Thorold Dickinson’s British stageplay adaptation with Charles Boyer, Joseph Cotton, and Ingrid Bergman with the expression-popularizing Gaslight! Presently available for subscribed streaming from Hoopla, IndieFlix, and Roku, and digital rental/purchase from all the usual suspects -YouTube, Amazon, Vudu, Fandango, pick your poison and watch along. See ya then!