George Washington Carver Visited the Alumni Center on Saturday

Left photo courtesy of Library of Congress, right photo Courtesy Iowa State University.

Left photo courtesy of Library of Congress, right photo Courtesy Iowa State University.

Talon Delaney

We all walk past George Washington Carver every week. He stands immortalized in a metal sculpture outside Carver Hall just a stone’s throw away from Parks Library.

On Feb. 3 Carver came alive again inside the Reiman Ballroom of the ISU Alumni Center when he spoke to nearly 220 people over the course of two lectures.

Of course, Carver wasn’t really the one lecturing. A more recent ISU alumnus, Paxton Williams, stepped into the role of the sage professor. He shared Carver’s life story: His successes, his failures and the countless kind people who helped him on his way.

It wasn’t the first time Williams donned a brown suit, derby cap, a fake grey mustache and bifocals to become one of Iowa State’s most famous graduates.

“Two thousand eighteen marks my 19th year studying and portraying the life of George Washington Carver,” Williams said.

Williams did not perform alone. His lecture was accompanied by the Praise and Worship Team and Musicians, one of Corinthian Baptist Church’s gospel choirs in Des Moines.

“Gospel music is a way to rejuvenate the soul, and we were honored to be a part of this,” said Barry Jones, minister of music and director of the choir. “It was a great opportunity to get outside the four walls of the church and spread the word of Jesus in a meaningful way.”

Williams first played Carver when he was a student at Iowa State in 1999. He’s performed as Carver in 24 states and in England since then. Williams is now an Iowa assistant attorney general.

The lecture chronicles Carver’s life and career, starting with his childhood in southwest Missouri. Born a slave circa 1864, just a year before the Civil War ended, he learned to read and write at home Susan Carver, the wife of his former master, Moses. Because of his race, he wasn’t allowed to attend the local school.

Eventually he attended a school further from his home in Neosho, Missouri, where he stayed with a local family while he studied. Before long Carver outgrew the little schoolhouse in Diamond, and left to pursue an education elsewhere.

“I went to Fort Scott, Kansas, and saw a colored man lynched,” Williams recalled. “I left Fort Scott that very night.”

After being denied admission to Highland College in Highland, Kansas, Carver found his way to Winterset, Iowa. There he worked as a cook, and after some time the townspeople who welcomed him suggested he attend Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa.

Carver gained acceptance to Simpson College, where he studied art and tended a garden. He grew an affinity for intricately drawing plants. After a year studying art, his professor Etta Budd suggested he enroll in Iowa State’s agriculture program, insisting he wouldn’t be able to make it very far as an artist.

Carver was the first black student at Iowa State. He wasn’t allowed to eat or live near other students when he first enrolled, but slowly overtime he was accepted more and more. He joined the campus military regiment, the German club and even wrote for the school yearbook. He earned his  bachelor’s degree in 1984 and his master’s degree in agriculture in 1896.

Carver went on to teach at Tuskegee University in Alabama. His research of sweet potatoes, peanuts and other crops helped impoverished farmers across America. He never sought to patent any of his studies or findings.

He presented over 350 industrial uses for the peanut before the U.S. House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee, including its utility in axle grease, shampoo, beverages and facial cleaners. He also met Franklin D. Roosevelt and Henry Ford, and even exchanged letters with Mahatma Gandhi.

“Carver’s story isn’t so much about him than it is about the people who helped him,” Williams said. “Carver was a genius, and we can’t all be like him. But we can be like the people who helped him, and become part of the conditions which shape these kinds of people.”

To Williams, Carver’s story is still relevant even though the man was born two centuries ago.

“Many of the issues present in Carver’s day are still with us,” Williams stated. “That man spent his whole life stressing the importance of education and assisting people who are new to your community.”

Multiple organizations within the Ames community made Williams’ performance possible. The night was hosted by Ames Children’s Theater, the Ames Public Library, Iowa State University and the Ames Public Library Friends Foundation.

All proceeds from the night were donated to the George Washington Carver Birthplace Association and the Des Moines’ Corinthians Baptist Church.

Carole Horowitz is the president of Ames Children’s Theater and a former faculty member of Iowa State. She directed Williams when he first portrayed Carver all those years ago.

“We were very pleased to get so many people involved,” Horowitz said. “We had the public library representing the city level, the children’s theater at the community level and ISU of course being at the state level. All these forces collaborated to make something fabulous.”

Note: This article was edited on Feb. 4 to make it more historically accurate.