Rep. Hartzler petitions to add George Washington Carver to National Garden of American Heroes

In an Aug. 31 letter to Secretary David Bernhardt of the U.S. Department of the Interior, Hartzler said honoring the agricultural scientist and Missouri native in the garden would highlight "agriculture and overcoming racial adversaries" in America's history.

U.S. Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Columbia, proposed in an Aug. 31 letter to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt that the department add agricultural scientist and Missouri native George Washington Carver to the National Garden of American Heroes.

President Donald Trump proposed the National Garden of American Heroes in a July 3 speech at Mount Rushmore and issued an executive order the same day explaining that the garden will showcase statues of “historically significant Americans.” In her letter, Hartzler wrote that Carver would make a good addition to the garden because his life reflects the importance of agriculture and the struggle for racial equality in American and Missourian history.

“The inclusion of this famous Missourian would further advance the preservation of America’s story through the lens of agriculture and overcoming racial [adversities],” Hartzler said in her letter.

Hartzler references several other reasons for Carver’s addition: his founding of Tuskegee University in Alabama, his agricultural research and teaching, his promotion of racial harmony, his work with peanuts and his faith.

Danny Jativa, Hartzler’s Communications Director, said naming Carver to the garden would preserve Carver’s story and reflect well upon the state of Missouri.

The letter and Jativa contended that Hartzler wants to honor Carver by requesting his addition to the monument, but Lindsey Simmons, Hartzler’s Democratic challenger in the November congressional race, said Hartzler’s move is “notable” but fails to address her record on race relations.

“It is indeed notable that she nominated a scientist and a Black man, considering in the past she hasn’t believed in the former and has denied justice to the latter,” Simmons said in a statement. “One act on Vicky’s part does not erase a decade of peddling birtherism, scapegoating immigrants or denying that Black lives matter, but I do sincerely hope it marks the first of many steps she’s taking to be a more inclusive, equitable and honest Congresswoman.”

Marc Gagne, 59, of Belton, Missouri, said that although he supported honoring Carver, he thought Hartzler’s move was a “propaganda piece.” He said her letter was another example of Hartzler using “fluff” to cover up her shortcomings: He likened it to how Hartzler has voted to cut funding for food assistance programs, which benefit over a million veterans, but posts often on social media in support of veterans.

Gagne said he will vote for Simmons in November and is phone banking for her campaign.

MU School of Natural Resources professor Charles Nilon also said he would be voting against Hartzler. Nilon said it was great that Hartzler had selected Carver for the garden, but he added that he believed Hartzler chose him partly because he is a “safe Black person.”

“He was someone who was born a slave, worked hard to educate himself and went on to do great things,” Nilon said. “I think that that's important. But I think that he’s been selected because … he's viewed as not having spoken out on racial issues.”

Nilon added that Hartzler should be careful of how using Carver to represent Missouri’s history of agriculture and race relations might appear. Carver was born enslaved in Diamond, Missouri, and he left for Kansas as a teenager in search of a better education and life because his home state barred him from opportunities due to his race.

State Historical Society of Missouri Executive Director Gary Kremer, who has spent most of his career studying African American history and has written two books about George Washington Carver, said one should honor Carver primarily for three of his accolades: his resilience in the face of Jim Crow and racism, his work as a conservationist and his agricultural research and teaching.

Kremer said that although he did not know much about the National Garden of American Heroes and did not want to comment on Hartzler’s motivations, Carver certainly deserves remembrance as an American hero.

“I honestly don't even know much about this garden,” Kremer said. “I think the more fundamental question is, ‘Do I support honoring George Washington Carver as a hero of American society?’ I would say absolutely I do. I think he's worthy of recognition and honor as a great American scientist.”

Edited by Joy Mazur | jmazur@themaneater.com

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