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  • Written by  Margaret Miller Curtis

You know you’ve had a great teacher when you remember- even in the last decades of your life- something he or she taught you.  A couple of days ago, I came across a photo of Miss Roberta Carter, who taught both history and English at MHS decades ago. As this is the time of year for planting, her long ago lesson about Booker T. Washington popped into my wandering mind.

As peanuts were then an important cash crop in Jackson County, I suppose that is why Miss Carter wanted us to know about Washington’s contribution to that industry. Some people thought Washington was responsible for discovering the peanut plant and the introduction of peanut butter, but that is not true. 

Peanuts were growing in South America at least 3,500 years ago, as archeologists found pottery made in that time that was shaped like peanuts and decorated with pictures of peanuts. Explorers took peanuts to Spain and from there to Asia and Africa. Slave traders brought peanuts along with African slaves to the South, including Florida, where they planted, harvested and cooked them.

I assume slaves may have been the first to boil peanuts, which was a favorite treat when I was growing up in Marianna. Living in other places, such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and California, I found it hard to find boiled peanuts, which seems to be most popular in the South. As a child, I loved peanut harvesting time, because my farmer relatives always included peanuts among their cash crops.

My friends, Neville Malloy and Hubert Hodges, loved peanuts for another reason. One summer, the two of them walked the streets of Marianna, selling sacks of boiled peanuts for ten cents a bag. Even at that modest price, they made enough money to pay for a trip around the country.  

I was surprised when I learned that many people are allergic to peanuts. I’ve read that we are less likely to be allergic to something we are exposed to at an early age, so I put sandwiches made of peanut butter and honey into their lunch boxes when they started kindergarten.  My pediatrician approved, saying nothing was more nutritious, but I should include an apple to help clean their teeth afterwards. 

 Miss Carter told us that Booker T. Washington founded Tuskegee Institute, in Tuskegee, Alabama. He was born into slavery and fervently believed that the only way for black citizens to rise in the world was through education. He belief was founded on his own experiences. He managed to get a college education for himself and opened a school for other blacks. After saving enough money, he bought land that had been formerly been a plantation and opened a school for training teachers. 

He brought in George Washington Carver as a partner in this enterprise, but soon learned they had little in common except a love of learning. Booker T. was a fastidious man, who believed personal appearance revealed self- respect or the lack of it.

Unlike Washington, Carver was brought up in the North, was sloppy and not as interested in teaching as he was in doing research. Washington also believed in research, but as the institute was founded to train other blacks to be teachers, he and Carver were often at odds with each other.

Despite their conflict, Carver remained at Tuskegee for 47 years, where he developed hundreds of products from peanuts and other crops. He stayed even after Thomas Edison attempted to lure him away to work with him in his laboratory in New Jersey.  Washington knew he was lucky to have Carver on the faculty and gave him extra privileges, which other faculty members resented. Carver was given two rooms, one for himself and the other for his plants. Other unmarried faculty members had to share a single room with a roommate.

Washington appealed to and was supported by many philanthropists of his time. Even so, he had no desire to seen as their equal. He believed that cooperation with others was more important than competing with them. He was not interested in integration and was criticized for his philosophy of “separate but equal.” He believed that when blacks were given equal opportunity, they would gain equal respect as well. Elevation through education was his motto.

He drew up a list of virtues for his students:

1. Be clean, inside and out.

2. Neither look up to the rich nor look down on the poor.

3. Win without bragging.

4. Lose without complaining.

5. Always be considerate of women, children and the elderly.

6. Be too brave to lie.

7. Be too generous to cheat.

8. Take your share of the world and let others have theirs.

He did not just take his share of the world, however.  He added to it. Being unselfish has a way of doing that, because “love in your heart will always stay, however much you give away.”

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