Education professor studies George Washington Carver on sabbatical

As a someone who teaches future teachers, Dr. Ed Williamson has always been fascinated with one of America’s most storied educators: George Washington Carver.

“(Carver) was born into slavery in the 1860s,” Williamson explains. “Then he contended with all the racism and prejudice of the day, eventually becoming arguably the most well-educated African-American of his time and a world-renowned scientist, inventor and humanitarian.”

Williamson has taught in Drury’s School of Education and Child Development since 1999. His work teaching courses on science instruction led him to build a connection with the staff at the George Washington Carver National Monument outside Diamond, where he would often take students on field trips.

When it came time to take a sabbatical this year, Williamson knew he wanted to spend it at the pastoral Carver Monument – in the archive and in the field as volunteer park ranger.

Williamson at the Carver National Monument site.

Williamson at the Carver National Monument site.

His research focused on the early years of Carver’s life and education. He used primary sources from the Monument’s archive, as well as secondary sources derived from oral histories and a swath of existing scholarship.

Williamson came to know the resiliency of the young Carver, who he says had an “I can” outlook on life from early on. Carver’s thirst for knowledge led him to leave his adoptive home at age 12 and go to school in nearby Neosho, never to return.

The research also led Williamson to a man named Stephen Frost. Frost was Carver’s first formal teacher at the Neosho Colored School. Carver left not long after arriving there, however.

“The story was that Carver was there about six months before he realized his new more than his teacher and then left,” William says. “But as I got more in depth, Frost became more interesting to me.”

Frost had only learned to read and write a few years before teaching in Neosho. He may not have had much formal education himself, but he was doing what he could.

“He was giving back what little he had,” Williams said.

Frost has a connection to present-day Drury, too. He came to Springfield in the late 1870s and became a pastor at the historically black Washington Avenue Baptist Church. That church is now the Diversity Center on campus. He returned to the Neosho Colored School a few years later and finished out his career there, teaching an entire generation of black students in that area.

As for Carver, his “I can” attitude in many ways matches the current push to teach perseverance and “grit” to youth. Researching that arc of achievement led Williamson to admire his subject even more.

“We ought to use George Washington Carver as the prime example of overcoming adversity and being resilient,” he says.

Carver eventually earned two degrees from what is now Iowa State University and was recruited to teach at the Tuskegee Institute in 1896 – the same year the Supreme Court made “separate but equal” the law of the land. He died in 1943, a decade before that precedent was overturned.

“So his entire career was under that shadow,” Williamson said. “It’s really remarkable what he was able to do, even with all the handicapping social conditions he faced.”

Williamson has lectured about his research once already at the Carver Monument and will do so again this November on the Drury campus.

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Story by Mike Brothers, Drury’s director of media relations. A version of this story first appeared in the Springfield News-Leader.