The Neosho Colored School, where George Washington Carver attended classes, is currently being restored.
NEOSHO – Before George Washington Carver became the world’s peanut wizard, he was a boy in the Ozarks with a dream. His fantasy, however, wasn’t of widespread fame or fortune. Instead, it was of simply going to school.
It was a wish, in those days, that perhaps seemed as far-fetched as making milk from a peanut. He was a black orphan in the wake of the Civil War, schools were scarce, and few saw the value in educating African Americans.
Those factors, however, didn’t deter Carver. His journey into the international spotlight began with a single step, one that led him to Neosho’s colored school.
Today, the building still educates. It reminds of when the Ozarks was segregated based on skin; it teaches of a time many would like to forget, but must always remember.
Those lessons, however, were almost lost — because the structure was nearly torn down.
The school’s start
The school — also known as the Lincoln School, presumably in honor of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln — had its start in response to government mandate.
“In 1872, following the Civil War, Missouri law stipulated that each town provide schooling for African Americans,” says Kim Mailes, Neosho historian and board member of the Carver Birthplace Association. “This was really built as a residence, (and) the town bought it for an African American school.”
Back in those days, however, the school didn’t only see young faces within its walls.
“They had school all hours of the day and night,” says Mailes. “The African Americans were so hungry for education that 60-year-old men would flock in here with 5-year-old boys to learn how to read.”
One of those students was George Washington Carver, described by the Neosho Times in 1922 as “a dreamer, an inventor, a scientist, who forced his way to an education when opportunities and schools for his race were as scarce as the proverbial hen’s teeth.”
George Washington Carver
Born near Diamond, Mo., Carver’s earliest days were fraught with instability — and, in the words of the Neosho Times, “read more like fiction than fact.”
“When he was a small boy the man who is today perhaps the most distinguished Negro scientist had the singular experience of being swapped for a horse,” wrote the Baltimore Sun in November 1931. “It happened that a band of frontier marauders paid a visit to the farm one day and stole the boy and his mother. They carried them into the neighboring state of Arkansas and there traded him for the horse, which was valued at $300.”
Carver’s mother was never seen again — but her former master, Moses Carver, sent the horse in trade for the baby. Carver spent his youth with the family, and was supported well by standards in that day and time.
“You can’t really say they treated him as a son, but he was in the family,” says Mailes.
Carver’s curious nature was evident from an early age. He “displayed an uncommon interest in plants and insects and was accustomed to roaming the woods and collecting specimens,” recorded the Baltimore newspaper. “He was eager for education (and) so impressed Mr. Carver that the gentleman allowed him attend a school some miles away.”
That school was the aforementioned Neosho facility, located in the heart of the town’s black neighborhood.
Some say that Carver was brought into Neosho by wagon for school, while others say he walked. Regardless of how he got there, it was wasn’t an easy journey — especially since it doesn’t appear he knew how he’d get home. That question, however, was soon answered by Andy and Mariah Watkins, who lived two doors from the school.
“That morning when Aunt Mariah stepped out of her house she found ‘George sitting on their wood pile with all his belongings in a little red bandana on a stick over his shoulder,'” recorded a 1975 interview in the Ozarks Mountaineer. “She talked with him long enough to find out his situation and then welcomed them into their humble home.”
In those days, the Watkins were famous ones. A former slave, Mariah Watkins served as the town’s midwife and even delivered Thomas Hart Benton, the noted Missouri artist, in 1889.
“She carried a black satchel, and the children of the town always suspected that she was carrying in it a new baby for someone,” printed the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in January 1971.
Immaculately dressed, her uniform was distinctive: She wore a white nurse’s cap, dress and apron, complete with lace along the bottom that was crocheted while sitting with mothers and babies.
Mariah Watkins, pictured with some of “her” children.
(Courtesy of the Ozarks Mountaineer)
The Watkins didn’t have children of their own, although Mariah Watkins was said to have borne several before they married — all of who were sold while she was still in slavery. “Maybe this accounts for Mariah’s great love of children, no matter the color or the age,” recorded the Mountaineer. “Mariah called each child she delivered ‘hers.’”
And while Mariah Watkins didn’t deliver Carver, she still left a lasting impression on “her George’s” life.
“Aunt Mariah, respected midwife for most of the white families in town at the time, taught the young Carver homemaking skills,” recorded the Neosho Daily News in March 1964. “He later credited the strengthening of religious faith to her example and teaching.”
Upward from Neosho
Carver didn’t attend the local colored school for all that long. After he exhausted its resources, he eventually made his way to Minneapolis, Ks., where he finished high school. “He then conducted a laundry three years to obtain money to attend college,” recorded the Times in 1922.
In 1884, he moved to Highland, Ks., to begin that college education at Highland University. His aim, however, wasn’t scientific knowlege: Instead, he was granted admission to the Presbyterian institution to become a minister.
But after school officials saw him in person, he wasn’t allowed to attend classes: The color of his skin was something they hadn’t realized from his application.
“As you will understand there is an alarming amount of that old Southern prejudice, viz, old pro slavery element existing here, and it seems to exert quite an influence over said institution,” wrote R. Martin in the Weekly Kansas Chief in December 1885. “Mr. Carver has been treated in the most contemptible manner since he has been here; has been accused of ‘coming here for the sole purpose of breaking up the University; was threatened to have the whole top of his head blown off, if he made the attempt to enter the school; were going to klu-klux him, etc.'”
Carver moved on, becoming the first African American to graduate from Iowa Agriculture College (Iowa State University). He was later recruited by Booker T. Washington, a respected educator, to the Tuskegee Institute (Tuskegee University). Carver remained attached to the institution for the rest of his career (during which he actually did find a way to make milk from peanuts).
Thanks in part to Mariah Watkins, Carver was a deeply religious man. He was a gentle soul who loved to paint, sew and crochet; one who didn’t work to reap materialistic benefits. Instead, he worked to help mankind regardless of race, proven by a 1943 article in the Daily News:
“Dr. Carver’s discoveries of uses for sweet potatoes and peanuts saved the Southlands when they petered out from too much cotton planting. They added millions to the South’s annual income.
His numberless chemical formulas could have made him a millionaire many times over — but Dr. Carver gave them all away. He donated to the world more than 300 products from peanuts, including cheese, paper, coffee, plastics — even face powder, and he developed 118 products from sweet potatoes — from ink and glue to crystalized ginger.
Such were the wonders of chemistry, worked by one of the most able members of the Negro race.”
Carver also accomplished a great deal toward the advancement of African American perception in that day and age.
“When you are inclined to speak of the ego as an inferior race and demand: ‘What has the negro ever done?’ you might give a thought to George Washington Carver,” printed the Iola Register (and other newspapers across the country) in 1923. “This man belongs to a race which the Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan declares to be ‘essentially savage, likely to retrograde rather than to advance in the scale of civilization.'”
Neosho still had its colored school when Carver passed away in 1943, but classes weren’t held in the same building he attended. That facility was the first of three colored schools in Neosho, and according to the Daily News, was utilized until 1891 when Neosho voters approved a $1,500 bond issue to build a new brick building. The former school resumed its journey as a private residence, eventually becoming a rental property.
As time passed, folks remembered that the school had been there — but they forgot that it was still there, especially since renovations took it far from its original state.
“This had been built on to, cobbled on to, added on to,” says Mailes. “It was just a mess.”
The school, after several additions. (Courtesy of Kim Mailes)
That “mess” made for an easy decision in 2005, when Arvest Bank donated the property to the CBA. The group decided to tear down the rental house and turn the property into a small park, perhaps with a monument commemorating Carver’s time there.
However, after consulting with the National Park Service, historic architect Al O’Bright was dispatched to give the building a once-over.
According to the Daily News, his trip resulted in “the greatest discovery of his career.” He found that the original school remained, tucked within the expanded walls of the rental house.
Given the gift of that discovery, the CBA formed a new plan of action: Instead of tearing down the school, they would save it.
Fundraising commenced, and plans discussed on whether or not to move it to the George Washington Carver National Monument near Diamond, Mo. The relocation suggestion, however, wasn’t discussed for long. After all, moving the building would destroy the historic context its location provided.
Then the fundraising began. After years of work, CBA used $35,000 to partner with HistoriCorps, a national organization that supports historic preservation through volunteer and student labor, to begin work in June 2016.
During the group’s three-week stint in Neosho, its members worked to strip off the siding, remove the three-room addition and haul off non-historic materials and stabilize the structure.
The “unwrapping” yielded historic treasure. According to a 2016 article in the Springfield News-Leader, around 70 percent of the original structure remained, including features such as the original wood weatherboards of the exterior walls under the modern siding, horizontal board wainscoting, plastered walls and ceilings, and early or original flooring.
Volunteers removed additions to the structure. (Courtesy of Kim Mailes)
“What we did this summer is we shored it up physically so it won’t fall down, and just took everything off that isn’t original,” says Mailes. “This is what was here when Carver came.”
Despite those discoveries, much work remains — and so does a hefty price tag, especially considering to-dos such as removing the ceiling, which comes in around $3,000 because of asbestos concerns.
The interior of the school house in February 2017.
According to Mailes, the next two phases are addressing the roof and foundation. “That’s a rubble foundation,” he says, indicating the layers of stones beneath the building. “Back then, they didn’t dig foundations, they just piled rocks up and built something on it.”
Those changes, however, are dependent on funding: Around $300,000 in total is the group’s goal, which would allow the school to be fully remodeled and available for the public to visit. Ideally, the group would also like to purchase and renovate the Watkins’ home into a visitors center.
But the project is about more than simply preserving a building or two.
“I really feel strongly about this project not only for Carver, but because this is one of the few colored schools remaining,” says Mailes. “We’re not only paying tribute to Carver, we’re paying tribute to African Americans.”
Want to learn more?
“A Negro Scientist of the Soil,” P.A. Carmichael, Baltimore Sun, Nov. 8, 1931
“Career of famed Negro to an end,” Neosho Daily news, Jan. 6, 1943
“From creek bank to commune,” Robert Sanford, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Jan. 13, 1971
“Highland University,” R. Martin, Weekly Kansas Chief, Dec. 3, 1885
“Negro chemist gets milk from peanuts,” Call-Leader, Feb. 26, 1930
“Negro from Newton County recognized as great scientist,” Neosho Times, Dec. 7, 1922
“New heroes step forward for historic 1872 school,” Roy Shaver, Neosho Daily News, July 29, 2016
“Railroad played important role in city’s development during days of Reconstruction,” Mary Cozad, Neosho News, March 15, 1964
“The Negro,” Iola Register, Nov. 5, 1923
“Today’s schools have colorful history,” Neosho Daily News, July 2, 1976
“Two-room Neosho school attended by George Washington Carver will be restored, preserved,” Claudette Riley, Springfield News-Leader, June 22, 2016