More than a decade ago I decided to interview an aging former neighbor. A lovely woman of great dignity. Maturing ever so gracefully, she personifies wisdom and experience. My hope was that our conversation would yield a unique story and perspective about lifes’ joys and the challenges of raising and educating five children, while managing to earn a degree as a Registered nurse.No small fete as a single mom coping in an urban industrial rust belt community settled by a mixture of northern born blacks and stream of black migrants arriving from the south after WW II,Eastern European immigrants and Hispanic families, seeking work in the steel mills and foundries darting the industrial landscape of East Chicago, Indiana a short commute from Chicago’s bustling South side.
We sat on her lawn near the familiar sprawling empty lot that for fifty years had been the site of the George Washington Carver Swimming pool, a public facility constructed for the recreational use of the City’s sizable black and Latino population. The City of East Chicago possessed an excellent parks and recreation system with well equipped swimming pools, and access to specific reaches of Lake Michigan’s beach shorelines. However there was an unwritten rule for years among black and white citizens that “Carver Pool” was the exclusive preserve of blacks, thus for years a pattern of segregated swimming pools existed as a reminder of the northern racial divide and remained status quo in an arrangement of separate but dubiously equal swimming pools.
What stands out to me from my late summer conversation was the pride my dear neighbor exuded, when she recalled being present at the Ribbon cutting ceremony, dedicating Carver Swimming pool in honor of the great African American Scientist,Dr. George Washington Carver as he spoke softly but proudly of the racial progress made on that glorious day when little black boys and girls would learn how to swim.And swim, we did!
George Washignton Carver (1864-1943)
Born into slavery at birth and stolen and sold elsewhere, George Washington Carver would have never been able to guess how far his love of plants would take him. It was namely his work in crop rotation techniques and in agriculture of the south with peanuts and cotton that he won recognition. It was his invention of different consumer uses of these products that helped boost the economy of the entire country. Taken back to his original birthplace and following the abolition of slavery, he was raised by the family that had enslaved him. They knew he was bright for his age and encouraged him in his educational pursuits. He would go to Kansas for High School as schools farther south were not open to African American attendance yet. When George applied to different colleges, he was rejected once they learned his was black. His name did not reveal his color. Finding disappointment in this, he moved even farther north into Iowa, where he would eventually attend Iowa State University as the first black student. It was during this period that he adopted the name George ‘ Washington’ Carver since there was another George Carver in his classes. Later on in his career, he would become the sole African American faculty member. He even remained there and received a Master’s Degree, where he gained international recognition as a budding botanist. Upon graduation, he was recruited and paid a substantial salary to teach at Tuskegee University. Initially, he was hired by Booker T. Washington, who promoted industry and labor as a way for his fellow African American brethren to rise in society. At Tuskegee, George Washington Carver would stay, completing research and teaching for nearly fifty years. Through his research, he found a variety of uses for the peanut plant. He worked on better concoctions for glue, ink, makeup, oils, soaps, salts, and recipes for the home. It is even claimed that he invented peanut butter. Over the remaining years in his career and life, George Washington Carver did not publish his autobiography, but a lot has been written about his life. He gave advice to numerous presidents, and was aided in his hopes that soy could be used for fuel by Henry Ford. He has had museums, schools, libraries, scholarships, and other awards named in his honor.