Significant George Washington Carver Archive Coming to Auction

Among the highlights of our March 2014 auction of Printed & Manuscript African Americana is an extraordinary archive of letters written by George Washington Carver between 1925 and 1937. The lot contains 97 letters signed “G.W. Carver,” to his friend Mrs. Sophie Liston, including 73 handwritten and 24 typed letters—most on “Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute” stationery—on various topics including agricultural lecture tours, racism, conditions during the Great Depression, Tuskegee Institute life, the Christian Science Church, national government policy, polio treatments, massage and oil therapy, painting and gardening. 

Carver’s background is complex. Born into slavery and raised by a white family, he was comfortable as a member of both races. Sophie Emma St. John Liston (1861-1937) lived near Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa when she met Carver, whose desperate circumstances as a newly enrolled student moved her. She was one of the few white neighbors who helped the young Carver by driving business to his laundry service and by organizing donations of necessities. The two shared an interest in painting, gardening and scripture, and when Liston moved to Los Angeles, their friendship continued to develop through these letters, which descended through the Liston family.

In the letters Carver discusses his experiments with peanuts and peanut oil, among other subjects. He seaks of his work on the treatment of infantile paralysis at length, citing a problem he had with his knee and massages with peanut oil. One can trace the progress of Carver’s career through in the letters, and the topic of his celebrity often appears. He writes of the Russians inviting him to come to the Soviet Union and a film documentary released to movie houses nationwide.

Only a couple of letters touch on race, though not as a focus, and contain poignant passages such as this one from 20 March 1935: “. . . There is no Christian Science Church nearer than 42 miles of us and it is a white church so you see I could not go if I was there. You, my great friend, cannot understand what a terrible blight this prejudice is, but God will take care of it in His own good time and way. . . .”