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David Coolidge

Two Scholars

One Born to the Purple, the Other Born a Slave

(18 January 1943)

From Labor Action, Vol. 7 No. 3, 18 January 1943, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

On two successive days, January 6 and 7, the New York Times and other papers carried obituary notices and short biographies of two distinguished and well known scholars, educators and research students. One was A. Lawrence Lowell, former president of Harvard, the other was George W. Carver, member of the faculty of Tuskegee Institute. Both men were: outstanding in their respective fields of investigation: Carver in the field of agricultural chemistry and biology; Lowell in the science of government. Here the parallel, between the two men ends.

Lowell was a Boston Brahman, born to the purple, a resident of “Gold Coast Boston.” The Times says that ‘’after his retirement from Harvard he lived in his austere Marlboro Street home in Boston’s Back Bay or at his summer place on Cape Cod.”

He was a descendant of John Lowell, a member of the convention of 1780 which framed the Massachusetts constitution, and of Francis Cabot Lowell, who established the foundation of the family fortune when he started cotton mills at Waltham and the town of Lowell, named after the family. .His father was Augustus Lowell, a Boston financier. He was a brother of Percival Lowell, the Harvard astronomer, and of Amy Lowell, the poetess. His ancestors were Harvard educated from 1760 to the present day.

Lowell himself was administrator of the Augustus Lowell Trust which held a controlling interest in many profit-making and dividend-paying New England industries. He had inherited enough wealth to be able in 1933 to give $1,000,000 to Harvard for establishing the Harvard Society of Fellows. This was A. Lawrence Lowell, Boston aristocrat, owner of textile mills, professor of government, president of the oldest university in the United States.

Fortune Built on Slavery

The Lowell family textile mills in Lowell got their cotton from the fields of the South. They established their mills in the last decade of the eighteenth century in the days of slavery and the slave trade. They were like old Peter Fanuiel, who made his money from the slave trade and then used a part of it to build Fanuiel Hall, which came to be known as the “Cradle of Liberty.”

Not only was the Lowell fortune built on slavery, but on the severest exploitation of native and immigrant labor in Lowell and Waltham. After the overthrow of the slave system in the Civil War, the Second American Revolution, the cotton for the Lowell mills continued to come out of the sweat, blood and tears of white and black labor in the South.

Workers, of course, know little or nothing about this side of the life of A. Lawrence Lowell, scholar, blue-blood and University president. We want to call their attention, however, to another field in which this man Lowell made a name for himself, an altogether infamous name.

Lowell – And Vanzetti

Lowell, a man by the name of Stratton, who was head of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and an obscure judge by the name of Grant were named by the Governor to act as an advisory commission in the Governor’s investigation of the Sacco-Vanzetti case. Here all the disdain, the contempt and the hatred of the working class that had been bred in the breasts of this class of Boston Brahmans, came out. Lowell was revealed and exposed not as the impartial and unbiased scholar searching for “truth,” but as the textile mill owner, as a most reactionary protector of the interests of the class to which he belonged.

Vanzetti wrote to a Mrs. Evans from the Charleston prison on July 17, 1927: “But my hunger strike is progressing because I know that both the Governor and the commission have ill-treated our witnesses, wrongly, and that they believe nothing of what our witnesses say. They believe, and treat well those handful of criminals, harlots and degenerated who perjured against us.” In another letter Vanzetti writes of how the commission had “abuse[d] three Italian men because they witnessed the truth. Lately it was found out that the three men had told the truth.”

The Lowell: commission denied the request of defense attorneys for public hearings. They held private interviews with the miserable and reactionary Thayer, who was the trial judge. They held private sessions with eleven of the Dedham trial jurors and the prosecuting attorney. They refused to tell defense counsel what these interviews disclosed. After these star chamber sessions the commission came in with a report that Sacco and Vanzetti had been given a “fair trial” and that there was no reason for the Governor’s intervention. After years of the most brutal kicking around by the whole pack of their capitalist oppressors, these two humble Italians, who nobody but a plain fool could believe guilty, were electrocuted on August 22, 1927. And Lowell lived on in his “austere Marlborough Street home in Boston’s Back Bay ...”

Carver’s Background

The other distinguished scholar, George Washington Carver, had no such background as Lowell’s. He was descended from and born of the slaves who picked the cotton that went to Lowell’s mills. His ancestors did not come over on the Mayflower seeking freedom. They were snatched away from a life of freedom, fastened with chains and subjected to the horrors of the Middle Passage. When they arrived in the United. States they were herded on the cotton, rice and tobacco fields.

Dr. Carver could not read nor write before he was twenty. Lowell graduated from Harvard at twenty-one, cum laude with highest honors in mathematics. There was no Exeter, Andover or Groton for Carver. There was not even a public elementary school worth the name. In infancy he was stolen along with his mother and carried into Arkansas. His mother was never heard of again but the boy was bought back from his kidnappers for a race horse worth $300 and returned to his home in Missouri. This was happening to Carver and other Negro boys while Lowell and other sons of the aristocracy were being nurtured by educated and well-placed families.

Carver worked his way through high school and the Iowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts. Almost immediately he entered upon what was to be his life work at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. The story of his achievements in the field of scientific agricultural research has been told again and again and need not be repeated here.

Worked with Peanut

His best known work was with the peanut, the sweet potato and the common Alabama clays. Here his chemical wizardry produced what to the ordinary man may seem like miracles, beside which the dreams of the old alchemists for the transmutation of the “base metals” into gold appear elementary and primitive. He produced more than one hundred products from the peanut, including wood stains, face creams, milk and an oil useful in the treatment of infantile paralysis. From the sweet potato he produced among others: dyes, coffee and flour. From the red clay of Alabama he got ink, paper and pigments.

Dr. Carver aroused a great deal of discussion over what he claimed was his method of discovery. He said: “My discoveries come like a direct revelation from God.” This statement worried many people. They concluded that while Carver was a genius, he was also a little “backward.” But Carver gave the key to the whole problem when be said that “the idea and the method of working out a new product come all together. In half an hour after the idea was revealed to me, I produced the yolk of an egg from the Puerto Rican sweet potato.”

This is not the time nor the place to enter into this aspect of Dr. Carver’s attitude toward science and scientific method and discovery. Perhaps Carver himself wasn’t clear on many aspects of the question. This is not unusual among great scientists. There is a constant discussion going on today among great scientists on how scientific discovery or invention is made. That is all that can be said on this matter here.

“Prove Yourself” Nonsense

We want to emphasize again that here was a Negro of humble ancestry coming out of slavery and oppression who reached the ultimate heights in a highly technical and scientific profession. (He had the unusual distinction of being made a member of the Royal Society of London.) Carver achieved this distinction in the most violently prejudiced environment in the whole world. What might happen in the lives of countless Negro youth living in a different environment – an environment free from race prejudice and Jim Crow? What might happen in the lives of countless white youth if they could live in an environment free from class prejudice and capitalist exploitation and discrimination?

Some nit-wit will perhaps say that the hardships to which George Washington Carver was subjected were good for him, that they brought out the best in him. This, of course is sheer nonsense. The Lowell families would never accept this argument for any of their offspring, but it is such people who think that privation, misery and hardship are excellent training for the “lower classes.”

Finally there are fools in the land who are always yelping that “the Negro must prove himself.” There was the Southern “statesman” who said that if he found a Negro who could conjugate a Greek verb (quite a task) he would believe the Negro was equal to the white man. As if in reply, a Negro wrote a Greek grammar. It was said that Negroes are not skilled mechanics. When they applied for training or apprenticeship they were turned down or given the run-around. When they broke through, like Carver, they were denied employment. And yet the pack kept howling: “Prove yourselves.”

This is all nonsense and worse. It is Jim Crow! It is race exploitation and class exploitation!

No Negro should be beguiled in the least into accepting such puerile Jim Crow clap-trap. They should point to all the distinguished Negro men and women in every field and to the thousands of humble Negro workers in every phase of activity who have already proved themselves.

The proof has been made. All that remains today is the will and the determination on the part of the Negro masses to break through the national policy of Jim Crow that keeps them second-class citizens, even during a war which is presumably a war for democracy.

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