Heroic Measures

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Their lives intersect on the page of history titled George Washington Carver.

A mutual interest in Carver brought them together: Frank Godden, an 83-year-old who knew the humble scientist, and 48-year-old Abdul-Salaam Muhammad, who meticulously researched his childhood hero.

Ask the men about Carver, and the response is the same. They recite long lists of his agricultural discoveries. They speak passionately of the creations he gave the world, while asking nothing in return. They talk of lessons he taught by example.

Since meeting at a gathering of the Tuskegee Alumni Assn. in Los Angeles, Godden and Muhammad have shared their passion for history and their desire to see Carver remembered. The men now live next door to each other in a triplex near USC, working to promote a greater awareness of Carver--particularly among young people.

"If you don't know your background, what you've contributed, there's not too much you can do," Godden said. "History is so important."

Godden, historian for the local Tuskegee Alumni Assn., has amassed a collection of Carver photographs and memorabilia, and created a small museum in the third unit of his triplex. He is routinely sought by curators and writers searching for information about the history he has lived.

"He knows so many things," said Solomon L. Banks Jr., the association president. "What he doesn't have in writing and documentation, he remembers."

Muhammad created Dr. Carver's American Original Creamy Peanut Butter, a brand that carries Carver's image on the jar--a fitting tribute, Muhammad said, to the man who gave the nation peanut butter as we know it. It is not yet on the shelves, but Muhammad is searching for investors and financing to mass-produce the product and simultaneously multiply Carver's profile among the general public.

One of nine children, Godden grew up on the campus of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, where Carver was an instructor. He started at the school in 1928 at 14--back when it still offered a grammar school and high school curriculum--and graduated in 1939.

During those years, Godden worked as a campus guide, taking visitors on tours of the laboratory Carver called "God's Little Workshop."

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By then Carver was already known as a "creative scientist"--part scientist, part mystic--who spoke of his inventions as revelations from God.

Each morning, Carver rose at 4 for a daily walk in nature, a quiet time to receive messages from flowers and plants. "I love to think of nature as an unlimited broadcasting system through which God speaks to us every hour, if we only tune in," he once said.

The man who would invent more than 300 uses for the peanut, nearly 200 uses for the sweet potato and revolutionize agricultural practices was born a slave in Diamond Grove, Mo., about 1861.

Shortly after his birth, nightriders kidnapped Carver, his mother and sister from the man who owned them. Carver was returned--near death by then--in exchange for a horse worth $300. But he would never find his mother or sister and later would refer to his aloneness again and again.

In 1921, Carver spoke before a House committee on the issue of a tariff for peanuts. Members at first laughed as he pulled out samples of products made from the peanut. "Do you want a watermelon to go along with that?" one asked. In the end, he was invited back for further testimony.

What Godden remembers most about his first meeting with Carver is the scientist's curiosity about his family. Carver wanted to know everything, so Godden told him--about his father, who was a minister and a farm demonstration agent at Florida A&M; University; about his mother, who was a high school principal and music teacher at an all-black high school; and about Live Oak, Fla., the town they lived in before the Klan ran them out because of his father's political activity.

Carver was a humble presence--the same worn clothes, a flower always in his lapel. More than once, Godden trekked across campus to the lab and knocked on the door, a group of curious visitors following close behind. Carver would peep through the cracked door and declare himself too busy to entertain guests.

A young Godden would then whisper pleas on behalf of his visitors. "It was embarrassing as the devil!" Godden said, but eventually Carver gave in. "We would get in there, and he would look like he was afraid to say anything. And then he would warm up, and he was one of the most interesting persons that you ever wanted to meet."

But not until later in life, after leaving Tuskegee, would Godden fully realize the place Carver held in the nation, and the world. "Carver [saved] the South," Godden said. "Carver is to the peanut what Edison was to the lightbulb."

Yet Carver was never an outspoken critic of bigotry, a fact that caused some to label him an accommodationist. "The very qualities that made him a hero to Americans of the 1940s and 1950s made him suspect among blacks and liberal whites in the 1960s," Gary R. Kremer wrote in "George Washington Carver in His Own Words" (University of Missouri, 1987).

Godden doesn't share all of Carver's views, but he doesn't define him by those alone. After migrating to Los Angeles, Godden worked as a photographer and owned a number of small businesses. Early in his career, he worked in real estate and helped develop Val Verde, a town in the Santa Clarita Valley founded by African Americans during an era when beaches, country clubs and other recreational areas in Los Angeles were reserved for whites only.

His collection of photographs--many of which he shot himself--and other Carver memorabilia have been displayed at the Museum of African American Art at Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, and he plans to open his museum to small groups of visitors. He also has written a foreword to a book about Carver.

But Godden's greatest hope is that the collection will help ensure that the story of Carver is not lost on young people--particularly those educated here in Los Angeles, far from black colleges, and the sense of history they can impart.

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Like others of his generation, Abdul-Salaam Muhammad, who was raised in L.A., learned of this history through books and the teachings of elders.

He was 7 when he received his first book about Carver. It was a self-published pamphlet written by Walter L. Hutchinson, his early mentor and coach, who was a Tuskegee alum and, he later learned, a friend of Godden. "That book was always present wherever we lived," he said. "It was always on the coffee table, on the shelf. . . . He was my first African American hero."

For years, Carver offered Muhammad what heroes often provide: a constant reminder of possibilities, a justification for dreams and high hopes.

A few years ago, Muhammad's thoughts turned again to Carver. He was in the aisle of a grocery store buying peanut butter when he flashed on Carver and realized there was no brand of peanut butter that even mentioned Carver's name. "Here's a man who developed over 300 products from the peanut," he said.

After an injury forced Muhammad to give up his work for a bottled water company, him immersed himself in Carver and the peanut. He read every book and article. He wrote letters to Tuskegee, explaining his idea for a Carver product.

By 1995, that idea had become Dr. Carver's American Original Creamy Peanut Butter, developed by Muhammad, who also became known as "the Peanut Man." An initial batch was manufactured in Louisville, Ky., with a red and green label bearing Carver's portrait.

Last year, a friend introduced Muhammad to Godden at a Tuskegee Alumni dinner, and Muhammad shared his idea. Godden was thrilled to hear about the peanut butter and thoroughly impressed with how much "this young man" knew about Carver and the peanut.

"This guy had researched peanut butter, he had researched the peanut, he had researched everything. He just blew my mind." The men struck up a friendship, and since then they have been the sage and the student.

From Godden, Muhammad learned more intimate details about Carver, subtleties that can be gleaned through knowing a person. Godden has shared photographs, letters that Carver wrote to him and Tuskegee yearbooks--including one with a photograph of the man who gave Muhammad his first book on Carver.

In turn, Muhammad has passed his knowledge on to students through presentations at local schools--including his alma mater, Carver Middle School.

And Godden has opened the door for Muhammad to receive the approval from Tuskegee needed to continue his project. Through Godden, Muhammad has met the head of the Carver Research Institute, as well as Carver's former lab assistant and other Tuskegee alumni.

Through an entrepreneurial training program at First African Methodist Episcopal Church, Muhammad is applying for a business loan. Already, he has traveled across the country meeting with the heads of markets and distributorships about his peanut butter, as well as trying to find investors.

It is Godden who encourages Muhammad to "stick in there" when things don't come together as he would like. Godden speaks from experience--and Muhammad always listens.

"It's good to know you have somebody who is like a pioneer helping to inspire you," he said.

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