George Washington Carver- Famed ag scientist attended Black school in Olathe

Two men standing in front of a window discussing GW Carver's time in Johnson County.

Bob Courtney, right, and Henry E. Lyons look at historic maps of the Johnson County Square where George Washington Carver once visited to play and study nature since his nearby school had no playground.

By Gerald Hay

Black History Month in February is a time to acknowledge and celebrate the achievements of African Americans in society as well as in the Johnson County community.

Long before the famous U.S. Supreme Court case of Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education that ended school segregation 67 years ago and the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 ending national segregation, African Americans had made their mark in local and national history. George Washington Carver was one of them.

Born in Missouri, his nomadic quests for an education involved schools and colleges in Missouri, Iowa and Kansas. That included attending a small school for Black students near the Johnson County Square.

Carver’s time in Olathe was only about a year, but meaningful in his quest for an education as a young boy when school segregation was the norm, according to Bob Courtney, vice president of the Olathe Historical Society.

“George Washington Carver was here in Olathe,” he said. “He went to school here. He worked in a laundry here.”

Some researchers believe Carver attended what was known as the Old Rock School (1868-1898), Olathe’s first public school at Water and Loula streets. However, Courtney’s research indicates Carver more than likely attended a small all-Black school at the opposite corner of the downtown square.

An entry on Aug. 3, 1874 from the Olathe Clerk’s Record notes a building on the west side of the public square belonging to A.S. Devinney “was rented for the colored school” by the Board of Education for $50 a year with the board “to make and pay for all necessary repairs.”

According to Courtney, Carver, then in his mid-teens, attended the school near the corner of Kansas Avenue and Santa Fe Street. The site is now occupied by the Central Booking Facility of the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office.

“Despite his many trials and tribulations, George Washington Carver persevered to get an education,” said Henry E. Lyons, president of the Olathe unit of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. “Even Olathe’s segregation of schooling did not stop him from suffering through it to acquire knowledge.”

In historian Robert P. Fuller’s book on “The Early Life of George Washington Carver,” Rashey B. Moten, a friend and classmate of Carver, offered some insight about his peer and a small all-Black school in downtown Olathe at the edge of the Johnson County Square.

“The school had no name. Was just the colored school. That’s what they called it. We had no school only an old building that had been used by a man who cut cemetery blocks,” according to Moten’s memory from Fuller’s book.

Moten described Carver as “a tall, lanky kid” who “didn’t care to play games,” but had a strong interest in plants, trees and nature.

“We’d go to the park. Our school had no playground … We played in the public square,” Moten said, according to the book. “He and I would be playing marbles, and he would say, ‘Oh! Rash, look what a beautiful leaf. Look at these trees,’ and I wanted many times (to say), ‘Come on and shoot.’ And, he’d say, ‘Look at the edge of these leaves.’ And in that way, he found clover leaves and things like that. We’d play until the bell rang and we’d run over and go across the street to our school.”

George Washington Carver was born into slavery sometime in the early to mid-1860s in Diamond Grove, Missouri (now Diamond, Missouri.) but the date of his birth was never established. Most researchers believe he was born in 1864.

According to various biographies about him, Carver attended an all-Black school in Neosho, Missouri, because African American students were not allowed in public school in Diamond Grove. He left Missouri around 1877 at about age 13 in his quest for an education and settled with a foster family in Fort Scott, Kansas. He left Fort Scott after witnessing the killing of a Black man by a group of white men. He headed to Olathe.

In Olathe, Carver “did cooking, washing, ironing, cleaned carpets, and did all kinds of work for a living,” according to Johnson County Museum, adding: “He became acquainted with Ben and Lucy Seymour, a formerly enslaved couple, whose home was located on Cherry Street between Poplar and Santa Fe. Ben was a well digger. Lucy owned a small laundry business (near the square).”

Most sources, including Courtney, indicated George Washington Carver attended school in Olathe between April 1879 and the spring of 1880. He was probably 14-15 years old.

“The process of room rentals for all-Black schools in Olathe continued until a school was constructed in 1889 named Lincoln School located at 414 West Spruce St. for African American students,” Courtney added.

By 1918, the first Lincoln School had become dilapidated, and a new school was opened that year. According to Johnson County Museum, locals called the new Lincoln School “the best school building in Kansas for its size.” Black and white children in Olathe were educated separately until 1958 when all schools were integrated. Lincoln School closed that year.

From Olathe, Carver continued his education in Paola and later graduated from high school in Minneapolis, Kansas, located north of Salina. He applied and was accepted to the all-white Highland College in Highland, Kansas. When he arrived, college officials refused to let him attend because off his race.

After homesteading in Western Kansas for a few years, Carver attended Simpson College, Indianola, Iowa, and later Iowa State Agricultural College (now Iowa State University) where he studied botany. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees and became a member of the college teaching staff.

In 1896, Carver joined Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) in Alabama to head the Agriculture Department, teaching for 47 years and earning fame in his farming research, including crop rotation and developing hundreds of products from peanuts, sweet potatoes and soybeans. He became known as “The Peanut Man.”

“Every African American child should read about his drive to get an education,” Lyons said. “In today’s world no excuse is acceptable from any African American child, or any other race of children, for not getting an education. They should also know that learning is a journey not a destination and one should continue learning all their life.”

George Washington Carver died in 1943 at the age of 78 or 79 at the Tuskegee Institute.

The rest is history.