Sunday, August 21, 2011

THE HELP: a novel written by Kathryn Stockett

Aided by the unscrupulous adventurers who operated the Freedmen's Bureau and urged on by a fervor of Northern hatred almost religious in its fanaticism, the former field hands found themselves suddenly elevated to the seats of the mighty. There they conducted themselves as creatures of small intelligence might naturally be expected to do. Like monkeys or small children turned loose among treasured objects whose value is beyond their comprehension, they ran wild--either from perverse pleasure in destruction or simply because of their ignorance.

Description of African Americans in Margaret Mitchell’s popular 1936 published novel Gone With the Wind

In 1936 Margaret Mitchell published Gone With the Wind a white fantasy of the American Civil War and Reconstruction era complete with white supremacist portrayal of enslaved Africans and her vision of who they were after emancipation. These fantasy “darkies” had no lives, dreams or aspirations outside of serving their enslavers. Her view of slavery portrayed the enslaved Africans as being content, happy childlike creatures who were devastated when the South lost the war and wanted to remain living with their “owners” in slave like condition. The “bad negroes” were the ones who could not wait to leave the plantations, who took off to fight for their freedom, who tried to become politically engaged during Reconstruction. In Gone With the Wind the Ku Klux Klan are the “good guys” the saviours of the day, putting the “uppity negroes” in their place with dreadfully violent acts. The contempt and disdain in which she held African Americans comes through loud and strong when she wrote about the Africans who had recently been freed from slavery: They were, as a class, childlike in mentality, easily led and from long habit accustomed to taking orders. The former slaves were now the lords of creation and, with the aid of the Yankees, the lowest and most ignorant ones were on top. The better class of them, scorning freedom, were suffering as severely as their white masters. Thousands of house servants, the highest caste in the slave population, remained with their white folks, doing manual labor which had been beneath them in the old days. Many loyal field hands also refused to avail themselves of the new freedom.

In spite of the white supremacist language of the book peopled with one dimensional stereotypical portrayal of African Americans it is considered the most beloved Civil War novel. Mitchell was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1937 for Gone With the Wind. By the time the story was made into an equally popular movie released in 1939, more than 1.5 million copies had been sold. In spite of their popularity with white Americans the book and movie caused some distress in the African American community. Letters of protest were written by African American individuals and organizations including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the National Urban League. The demands and suggestions of African Americans were largely ignored by Hollywood and the rest is history.

Fast forward to the 21st century, more than 60 years after the release of Gone With the Wind and another wildly popular book written by a white woman (Kathryn Stockett) and made into a movie is causing anxious moments and dissatisfaction in the African American community. The book The Help published in 2009 (the movie released in 2011) tells the story of a group of white women and the African American women who work in their homes. According to Stockett her reason for writing the book is in memoriam of the African American woman who was her “family maid.” In the 1 ½ pages where Stockett reminisces about the woman who cooked, cleaned and raised two generations of her family she writes “Our family maid, Demetrie, used to say picking cotton in Mississippi in the dead of summer is about the worst pastime there is, if you don't count picking okra, another prickly, low-growing thing. Demetrie came to cook and clean for my family when she was twenty-eight. My father was fourteen, my uncle seven. Demetrie was stout and dark skinned and, by then, married to a mean, abusive drinker named Plunk. There were several years when I thought she was immensely lucky to have us. A secure job in a nice house cleaning up after white Christian people. But also because Demetrie had no babies of her own and we felt like we were filling a void in her life. I'm pretty sure I can say that no one in my family ever asked Demetrie what it felt like to be black in Mississippi working for our white family. It never occurred to us to ask. It was everyday life. It wasn't something people felt compelled to examine. I have wished, for many years, that I'd been old enough and thoughtful enough to ask Demetrie that question. She died when I was sixteen. I've spent years imagining what her answer would be. And that is why I wrote this book.”

Stockett would have been shocked out of her complacency by the answer Demetrie would have given her because it is obvious from the stereotypical characters of African American “maids” that people The Help that the author is clueless. The African American “maid” characters are contrived and caricatured especially their speech where the author struggles with the African American Vernacular (Ebonics.) If Stockett really wanted to write authentically about the lived reality of African American women working in the homes of white families during the 1960s then she would have read some books written by African American women telling their stories. Books including This Little Light of Mine, Memoirs of a freedom fighter, Coming of Age in Mississippi and From the Mississippi Delta are the stories of African American women who lived what Stockett has tried to write about.

African American women do not need their history rewritten to glorify white women with a fictitious young white writer charging in on her white steed to rescue a few hapless "maids" who idolise and rear the children of their “white families” as they silently suffer the abuse dished out from a handful of "bad egg" type employers. It borders on delusional for Stockett to retell the story with the mythical mammy peeping out from every corner of the book. Mammy came out of the imagination of white southerners determined to convince themselves that the enslaved African woman enjoyed her enslaved condition and loved her white tormentors and their children more than she loved herself. The mammy myth of the jolly, obese dark skin asexual woman was in contrast to the jezebel myth of the temptress enslaved African woman which was used to justify the rape of even enslaved female children. Stockett’s mammies are no threat to the white families who overwork and mistreat them until the young university educated white woman descends to the rescue. This in the 1960s when African Americans throughout the USA were sitting in, standing up and protesting. (Recommended reading From the Mississippi Delta by Ida Mae Holland published 1997)

The history of that period is well documented with African American sheroes like Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, Ida Mae Holland, Winson Hudson, Daisy Bates and countless others who suffered physical, mental and sexual abuse, emotional trauma and spirit injury but continued to fight the good fight. When those women and young girls were brutalized and traumatised by their employers (male and female) support came from their community, not from white women. The images that tell the stories of the role that white women played during that time including their resistance to 6 year old Ruby Bridges’ integration of William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans, Louisiana and 15 year old Elizabeth Eckford’s integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas as a member of the Little Rock Nine are available in books and on the Internet including: (, and

Of course if Stockett had followed the example of some white women who have taken the time to research and write books like Soul Sister: The Journal of a White Woman Who Turned Herself Black and Went to Live and Work in Harlem and Mississippi (by Grace Halsell published 1969) and At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance -- a New History of the Civil Rights Movement From Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power (by Danielle L. McGuire published 2010) her book would not have been as wildly popular as it is (279 copies at the Toronto Public Library and a “hold” list of 1,693) and most likely would not have been made into a movie.

In the book At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance -- a New History of the Civil Rights Movement From Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power some of the stories unknown outside of the African American community have been included. The author scoured the archives of African American newspapers, old court records and she also interviewed some of the African Americans who lived through the trauma, horror and terrorism visited upon them by white Americans. The book is not for the faint of heart. In the book The Help the author writes about one of the “maids” giving away her girl child because the child looked white. It would be hilarious if it was not so sad that this white woman does not realise that African American women and their communities did not abandon their children because they looked white (many of them the result of rape by white men.) To add insult to injury the author writes that this white looking child who returned to cause her mother much distress and her eventual demise was the biological child of the African American woman and her African American husband. If the author was going for authenticity that child would most likely have been sired by the white husband, father, uncle, grandfather, son or cousin of the African American woman’s employer. This reality is well documented. When white skin children were part of African American communities it was because there was a white man somewhere in the gene pool. It reminded me of the story of the white women during slavery who tried to convince themselves and everyone within hearing that the light skin children of the enslaved women on their plantations obtained their skin colour because they lived so closely with the plantation’s whites. Of course they knew very well what their male relatives were up to but “there are none so blind as those who will not see.”

The African American community has suffered this kind of indignity for generations where white people have told their stories whether it was dressing up and performing in blackface, making movies like Pinky and Imitation of Life or writing books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The Wind Done Gone written by Alice Randall published in April 2002 was an attempt to tell the story of the African Americans who were caricatured in Gone With the Wind. Hopefully it will not take 66 years for someone to tell the stories of the African American women in The Help.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011


Day-o, day-ay-ay-o
Daylight come and me wan' go home
Work all night on a drink of rum
Stack banana till de morning come
Come, Mister tally man, tally me banana
Lift six foot, seven foot, eight foot bunch
A beautiful bunch of ripe banana
Hide the deadly black tarantula
Day, me say day-ay-ay-o
Daylight come and me wan' go home

Excerpt from the Banana Boat Song

The Banana Boat Song also popularly known as Day O tells the story of workers in the Caribbean who harvested bananas for a living. These obviously exploited workers are lamenting the fact they have worked throughout the night with nothing to eat and only a drink of rum. It is back-breaking work stacking large bunches of bananas and to make matters worse they will not be paid until the “tallyman” has “tallied” how many bunches of bananas they have stacked. There is also the danger of being stung and possibly killed by deadly tarantulas. The Banana Boat Song is in the tradition of the well known work songs and field hollers used by enslaved Africans and later on by African Americans forced into chain gangs as they struggled to find ways to alleviate the backbreaking, tedious work they were forced to perform. The Banana Boat Song sometimes described as a Jamaican folk song was first recorded as "Day De Light" in 1952 by Trinidadian Edric Connor and his group The Carribbeans ( ). Over the years other versions by various performers have been recorded including the 1954 version Day Dah Light by Jamaica’s cultural icon the Honourable Louise (Miss Lou) Bennett Coverly ( However the most well known version of the Banana Boat Song was recorded in 1956 by Harry Belafonte on a Long Playing (LP) album Calypso and was so popular that it became the first LP album to sell a million copies. Belafonte born March 1 in New York City (Harlem) is the child of Caribbean immigrants. He spent 8 years from age 5 to 13 (1932-1940) living in Aboukir Village, St Ann, Jamaica before returning to New York City where he eventually became an actor and singer. Belafonte returned to Aboukir in 1980 to film the television special “Harry Belafonte: Back to Roots.” Belafonte is also a well known social justice activist who advocated for the Civil Rights of African Americans while working with Dr Martin Luther King Jr and other activists. He grew up in the days of segregation when African American entertainers traveling in the US South were forced to sleep in their vehicles if they could not find an African American owned hotel or motel.

The experiences of today’s generation of entertainers are different and this was brought home to me when I heard what I initially thought was a new version of Day O. This is not the Banana Boat Song. The chorus of the song contains the refrain Day-o, me say day-o, Daylight come but that is where any similarity with the Banana Boat Song ends. While the lyrics of the Banana Boat Song speaks to the history of exploited workers in the Caribbean, the lyrics of this new song that makes use of the refrain Day O, contains nothing about history. This is a song about partying, getting out of control drunk and even hinting at arson. An excerpt from the song is:
Check that out, what they playin', That's my song, that's my song.
Where my drinks? I've been waiting much too long,
And this girl in my lap, passing out, she's a blonde
The last thing on my mind is goin' home...
From the window, To the wall
This club is jumpin' Til tomorrow
Is it daylight? Or is it night time?
1 o'clock, 2 o'clock, 3 o'clock, 4
We gon' tear the club until til, til-til-til-til...
Day-o, me say day-o,
Daylight come and we don't wanna go home.
Yeah so, we losin' control,
Turn the lights low 'cause we about to get blown.
Let the club shut down, We won't go, oh, oh, oh!
Burn it down, To the flo, oh, oh, oh!
Day-o, me say day-o,
Daylight come and we don't wanna go home.

The song is becoming increasingly popular and the 21 year old African American singer is probably very talented since he attended Dillard Center for the Arts in Fort Lauderdale, Florida and graduated from the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York. He is an actor, dancer and singer-songwriter who studied ballet, opera and theatre. Born in Miami, Florida he is a child of Caribbean immigrants like Belafonte who popularised the Banana Boat Song more than 50 years and a few generations ago. Unlike Belafonte and many African American entertainers of his time who felt the need to positively represent their people it seems the younger generation do not think they have the same responsibility. This seemingly talented young African American man may not feel that he has a responsibility to preserve the history of the Banana Boat Song and that it is appropriate to use the refrain Day O in a song that if not encouraging and promoting, then at least glorifying drunken and anti-social behaviour.

Do African American artists have a responsibility to represent their culture in a positive manner? Or is it that in this often touted “post racial” society they think that “we have overcome” and that is no longer necessary? Is this the freedom for which freedom fighters including Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hamer, El Hajj Malik El Shabazz, Dr Martin Luther King Jr and the Honourable Marcus Mosiah Garvey sacrificed their lives? There are quite a few examples of this kind of behaviour and mind set including a very popular entertainer encouraging the bleaching of our beautiful ebony skin. Garvey (August 17, 1887 – June 10, 1940) who said “Up you mighty race you can accomplish what you will” would most likely be shocked and disappointed to see that some people seem to include the addendum “and when you have accomplished disrespect and disregard your culture, people and history.”

Monday, August 1, 2011


On Monday, August 1st Torontonians will celebrate Simcoe Day in honour of John Graves Simcoe, Ontario’s first Lieutenant Governor. When Simcoe was appointed to the position Ontario was known as Upper Canada and Africans were held in slavery throughout this country. Slavery in Canada and throughout the British Empire was abolished on August 1st 1834 but lasted in a different form (apprenticeship) in British Guiana (Guyana) and the British occupied Caribbean Islands (enslaved Africans in Antigua were not subjected to an apprenticeship period) until August 1st, 1838. As quiet as it is kept enslaved Africans fought for their freedom and it was not granted through the benevolence and kind heartedness of white abolitionists. Some of the African abolitionists whose names are not widely known include Jamaican Robert Wedderburn, Nigerian Olaudah Equiano (Gustavus Vassa), Ghanaian Ottabah Guoano and Ignatius Sancho (supposedly born on a British slave ship off the coast of Guinea.) Simcoe’s claim to fame in the abolition movement occurred in 1793 when he attempted to abolish slavery in Upper Canada. He was not successful in his attempt because many of his peers including William Jarvis, Peter Russell, Alexander Grant, James Baby, Richard Cartwright and Robert Hamilton were slave holders.

Simcoe was galvanized into action when on March 14, 1793 an enslaved African woman Chloe Cooley resisted mightily as she was beaten, tied up, thrown into a boat and rowed across the Niagara River and sold in America. Chloe Cooley did not go quietly, she resisted with everything she had. Here was a woman who although she was a slave in Canada was being sold away from everyone she knew. Life as she knew it was at an end so she had nothing to lose. She screamed and fought her enslaver William Vrooman and two other white men as she was being brutalized, bound and thrown into the boat and rowed across the river from Upper Canada to America. Chloe Cooley’s plight was documented when Peter Martin, a free African man who had witnessed the outrage, made an official report to Simcoe and the Executive Council of Upper Canada at a meeting on March 21, 1793. On July 9, 1793 An Act to Prevent the further Introduction of Slaves and to limit the Term of Contracts for Servitude was passed in the House of Assembly of Upper Canada. Although Chloe Cooley was not saved from slavery, her resistance was the catalyst that led to the first piece of anti-slavery legislation in Canada which even though it did not free any enslaved African immediately it at least gave them hope that their descendants would one day be free.

Even though life did not change for those enslaved Africans living in Upper Canada (Ontario) the passing of the Act to Prevent the further Introduction of Slaves and to limit the Term of Contracts for Servitude meant that any enslaved African who escaped slavery in the US and made their way to Ontario was a free person. Naturally as the word spread enslaved Africans fled the US to freedom in Ontario and a community of free Africans lived in Ontario alongside their enslaved brethren and sistren which made for some strange relationships. An example was the Pompadour family where Mr. Pompadour was a free man while his wife Peggy and their children were owned by Peter Russell and his sister Elizabeth. According to the law in every country where Africans were enslaved, regardless of the origin of the enslavers including British, Dutch, French, Spanish, Portuguese etc., the children of enslaved African women shared the mother’s enslaved status even if the father was the white slave holder. In the case of the Pompadour family, Peter Russell placed an advertisement in a York (Toronto) publication dated February 10, 1806 to sell his property Peggy, 40 years old ($150.00) and her son Jupiter 15 years old ($200.00) the wife and son of a free African man, Mr. Pompadour. Peter Russell was the member of the Ontario Legislature appointed to replace Simcoe when he left Ontario in 1796. As a member of the Family Compact and of the Executive and Legislative Councils of Ontario Russell was a power to be reckoned with in the province so it is not surprising that Simcoe’s attempt to abolish slavery in Ontario in 1793 was a failure.

The enslaved Africans who fled to Ontario seeking freedom after the passage of the 1793 Act to Prevent the further Introduction of Slaves and to limit the Term of Contracts for Servitude were not the first group of enslaved Africans to cross the border in search of freedom from slavery. The movement had gone in both directions even before 1793. In 1777 when Vermont abolished slavery, enslaved Africans fled Canada to freedom in Vermont. Following the American Revolution enslaved Africans who fought on the side of the British retreated to British North America (Canada) as members of the United Empire Loyalists. White members of the United Empire Loyalists brought enslaved Africans with them as their property so there were free and enslaved Africans in Canada. The well known story of the Underground Railroad which features Canada as a safe haven for enslaved Africans has another side; that of enslaved Africans in Canada who were not freed until August 1, 1834. The entire story needs to be told because there are people whose names decorate streets and buildings regardless of their role in the brutality and misery that was chattel slavery. Jarvis Street and Jarvis Collegiate both bear the name of a slave holder while there are no streets or buildings named in honour of African Canadians who contributed to the development of this city. Where is the Lucie and Thornton Blackburn (owners of Toronto’s first taxi cab business in 1836) building, street or square? Where is the William Peyton Hubbard (first African Canadian elected to public office in Toronto in 1894) building, street or square? It is a shame that in 2011 the International Year for People of African Descent there is hardly any recognition of the contributions Africans have made and even as we recognize August 1st as a holiday most Canadians do not know that the unpaid coerced labour of enslaved Africans contributed to the development of this country.


It is impossible for any white person in the United States, no matter how sympathetic and broad, to realize what life would mean to him if his incentive to effort were suddenly snatched away. To the lack of incentive to effort, which is the awful shadow under which we live, may be traced the wreck and ruin of scores of colored youth. And surely nowhere in the world do oppression and persecution based solely on the color of the skin appear more hateful and hideous than in the capital of the United States, because the chasm between the principles upon which this Government was founded, in which it still professes to believe, and those which are daily practiced under the protection of the flag, yawn so wide and deep.
Excerpt from Mary Church Terrell’s speech What It Means to be Colored in the Capital of the U.S. delivered on October 10, 1906, at the United Women's Club, in Washington, D.C.

On July 21, 1896, Mary Church Terrell became the first President, of the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs, Inc. (NACWC) which was organized in Washington D.C. at the Nineteenth Street Baptist Church. On Sunday, January 18, 2009, two days before his historic Tuesday, January 20, 2009 inauguration President – elect Barack Obama and his family attended services at the Nineteenth Street Baptist Church, one of the oldest historically Black churches in Washington D.C.

The founding of the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs, Inc. (NACWC) was the result of a merger of two national organizations; The Colored Women's League and the National Federation of Afro-American Women. The launch of NACWC in 1896 just 31 years after slavery was abolished in the USA marked the beginning of a new era of activism for African American women. Mary Church Terrell (September 23, 1863 – July 24, 1954) the child of formerly enslaved Africans was born just 2 years before slavery ended in the USA (January 31, 1865.) As the oldest child of Robert Reed Church who has been frequently described as the first African American millionaire Church Terrell was fortunate to have access to education even to post secondary level. She received a Bachelor's degree from Oberlin College in 1884 and after a two year tour (she was a product of the education system of the 1800s) traveling throughout Europe she returned to Oberlin College where she received her Master’s degree in 1888.

Church Terrell was an activist and educator who taught at Wilberforce University in Xenia, Ohio and at the M Street High School, a secondary school for African Americans in Washington, D. C. As an activist she advocated for an end to the Jim Crow Law, lynching and the convict lease system. In the June 1904 issue of the North American Review in an article entitled "Lynching from a Negro's Point of View” she wrote: Before 1904 was three months old, thirty-one negroes had been lynched. Of this number, fifteen were murdered within one week in Arkansas, and one was shot to death in Springfield, Ohio, by a mob composed of men who did not take the trouble to wear masks. Hanging, shooting, and burning black men, women and children in the United States have become so common that such occurrences create but little sensation and evoke but slight comment now. This dreadful American plague had touched Church Terrell’s family when in 1866 her father was attacked by a mob of white people jealous of his success as the wealthy owner of a hotel, restaurant and saloon. He was shot and left for dead but recovered and remaining in Memphis, Tennessee despite continued rabid anti-African racism and violence eventually built Church’s Park and Auditorium which seated 2,000 people and was a cultural, recreational and civic center for African Americans.

Although today the name Mary Church Terrell is not well known she is one of my sheroes as an activist in the civil rights movement (during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries) and the campaign for women's right to vote. In 1895 Church Terrell was the first African American woman appointed to the District of Columbia’s Board of Education and in 1949 (at age 86) she became the first African American woman admitted to the Washington chapter of the American Association of University Women. In her Address Before The National American Women's Suffrage Association on February 18, 1898 entitled The Progress Of Colored Women Ms Church Terrell is quoted: And so, lifting as we climb, onward and upward we go, struggling and striving, and hoping that the buds and blossoms of our desires will burst into glorious fruition ere long. With courage, born of success achieved in the past, with a keen sense of the responsibility which we shall continue to assume, we look forward to a future large with promise and hope. Seeking no favors because of our color, nor patronage because of our needs, we knock at the bar of justice, asking an equal chance. Her autobiography, A Colored Woman in a White World, was published in 1940 when she was 77 years old. The only copy of this book (which was reprinted in 1996) available at the Toronto Public Library (TPL) is a reference only copy at the Toronto Reference Library.

In 1950 Church Terrell launched a campaign to integrate restaurants in Washington D.C., after she and other African American colleagues were refused service at one of the restaurants of the John R. Thompson Restaurant chain. They filed a lawsuit against the segregated John R. Thompson Restaurant chain and during the three years pending a decision in District of Columbia v. John R. Thompson Co., Church Terrell targeted other segregated restaurants with boycotts, picketing and sit-ins. The campaign was eventually successful after a set-back in early 1953. The February 5, 1953 edition of Jet Magazine reported under the headline US Court Upholds D.C Cafe Jim Crow: “Barring of Negroes in Washington D.C., restaurants was ruled legal by the U.S Court of Appeals. By a 5 – 4 decision in a case involving a Thompson’s Restaurant, the court upheld segregation and said that laws of 1873 which bar Jim Crow are now invalid.” It was not until June 8, 1953, that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregated eating establishments in Washington, DC were unconstitutional.

The following year, on July 24, 1954, (17 months before Rosa Parks began her journey into Civil Rights history on December 1, 1955) Mary Church Terrell transitioned to be with the ancestors after a life of almost 91 years many of which were spent as an activist and advocate for the civil rights of African Americans. Her life’s work has benefited millions who are unaware that she even existed. It is important that we recognize and remember our heroes and sheroes especially during this International Year for People of African Descent.


On July 14, 1943, African American scientist George Washington Carver was honoured with a National Monument in recognition of his work in Biochemical Engineering. It was the first national monument dedicated to an African American and the first to an American who was not a US President. In his 1989 published book George Washington Carver Botanist Gene Adair writes: “On July 14, 1943 Carver joined US Presidents George Washington and Abraham Lincoln as the only Americans to have their birthplace designated as a national monument.” It was not the first honour Carver had received from the White House; in 1939 he received the Roosevelt Medal for restoring southern agriculture. The estimated year of Carver’s birth is 1864, one year before slavery was abolished in the US. He was born on a farm in Diamond Grove, Missouri. Carver, his mother Mary and his older brother Jim were owned by a white man and his wife, Moses and Susan Carver. The white Carvers had bought Mary in 1835 when she was about 13 years old and they owned her and her children even after slavery was abolished. There is no information about Carver’s father but there has been speculation that it was actually Moses Carver, the owner of Mary and her two surviving children. Not a far fetched speculation given the proliferation of rape of enslaved African women by the white families who were their owners and the owners’ relatives and friends.

The bill of sale Moses Carver received from William P. McGinnis when he bought Mary reads: “Received of Moses Carver seven hundred dollars in full consideration for a Negro girl named Mary age about thirteen years who I warrant to be sound in body and mind and a slave for life. Given under my hand and seal this 9th day of October AD 1835.” The historians tell us that when Carver was a baby, he and his mother were kidnapped by “slave raiders” and while the baby was recovered, Mary was never seen again by her children. This is the story Carver was told about the absence of his mother; the story he believed and repeated. Mary’s two children George and Jim Carver remained with the Moses Carver household as unpaid labour even though slavery was abolished.

Carver did not receive formal education until he was 12 years old. There were no schools in his neighbourhood that would accept an African American child so he moved to Neosho in Newton County, southwest Missouri, where he worked on a farm and attended school. He spent many years traveling and doing odd jobs including farming, cooking and laundering clothes. He was 15 years old in 1879 when he witnessed a white mob lynch an African American man in Fort Scott, Kansas. That traumatic incident caused him to flee the area even at the risk of not completing his education. After completing his high school education at Minneapolis High School in Minneapolis, Kansas he applied and received a letter of acceptance to Highland College in Highland, Kansas. In September 1885 when he arrived at Highland College he was refused entrance because the college’s administration had not known he was African American when they sent him the letter of acceptance. It was not until September 1890 that he gained acceptance to Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa, where he was the first African American student. Carver studied piano and art because the college did not offer science classes. He later transferred to Iowa Agricultural College (now Iowa State University) in 1891, where he gained a Bachelor of Science degree in 1894 and a Master of Science degree in 1896. Carver then became the first African American faculty member at Iowa College. Carver left Iowa College at the urging of Booker T. Washington, founder of the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute for Negroes (now Tuskegee University) one of the 105 Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in the US. Washington convinced Carver to travel south to Alabama and serve as the school's Director of Agriculture.

After becoming the institute's Director of Agricultural research, Carver devoted his time to research projects seeking to improve Southern agriculture. He conducted experiments in soil management and crop production and directed an experimental farm. At the time farmers in the Deep South mostly cultivated one crop – cotton- which had left the soil of many fields exhausted and almost worthless. Carver urged Southern farmers to plant peanuts, peas and soybeans to restore nitrogen to the soil. Carver developed the crop rotation method, which alternated nitrate producing legumes, such as peanuts, peas and soybeans, with cotton, which depletes soil of its nutrients. Carver developed 325 different uses for the extra peanuts, from cooking oil to printer’s ink. When he discovered that the sweet potato and the pecan also enriched depleted soils, Carver found almost 20 uses for the pecan, including making cheese, milk, coffee, flour, ink, dyes, plastics, wood stains, soap, linoleum, medicinal oils and cosmetics. He also found 118 uses for the sweet potato, including making flour, vinegar, molasses, rubber, ink, postage stamp glue, a synthetic rubber and material for paving highways.

In 1914, at a time when the boll weevil had almost ruined cotton growers, Carver revealed his experiments to the public and southern farmers soon began planting peanuts one year and cotton the next. Many southern farmers also began planting sweet potatoes and increased their income. The exhausted land was renewed and the South became a major new supplier of agricultural products. When Carver arrived at Tuskegee in 1896, the peanut had not even been recognized as a crop, but within the next half century it became one of the six leading crops throughout the USA; and in the South it was the second cash crop (after cotton) by 1940. Carver's efforts helped liberate the South from its excessive dependence on cotton. Carver received many honours in recognition of his work including election to Britain's Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce in 1916 and the Spingarn Medal in 1923.

Carver’s life story is documented in several children’s books available at the Toronto Public Library (TPL) and bookstores. While enjoying the dancing, drumming, food and other facets of African culture at Afrofest on Sunday, I was fortunate to find at Nile Valley Books a beautifully illustrated children’s book about Carver’s life, A Man for All Seasons; The Life of George Washington Carver by Stephen Krensky, published in 2008.