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social sciences

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Carver, George Washington (1864?-1943)  
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While Carver's renown was certainly helpful in raising the profile of Tuskegee and attracting donations to the always underfunded college, administrators worried about potential scandal from another source: the persistent rumors of Carver's homosexuality.

Carver apparently considered marriage in 1905, but the identity of the prospective bride is not known. In any event, no engagement took place, and in subsequent years, Carver politely rebuffed all match-making efforts by well-meaning friends.

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Carver formed deep and often long-lasting friendships with male students, who came to be known as "Carver's boys." He wrote them affectionate letters that were flowery rather than explicit, and so it is not known to what extent--if at all--he acted upon any romantic feelings that he may have had for them.

McMurry speculates that "if such feelings did exist, it is doubtful that they were recognized by Carver," but rather "were transmuted into a feeling of spiritual oneness with his friends," and she concludes that "Carver's emotional needs appear to have been met through his religion and his religious friendships."

While it may be true that Carver sublimated his sexual feelings for his students, it is unlikely that he was unaware of them and their significance. Such a view attributes a kind of ignorance and naïveté to a man who was very widely read and deeply introspective.

McMurry does, however, note that Carver was wont to engage in "not very dignified" horseplay with "his boys," an activity that fueled the suspicion of some of his colleagues that he was homosexual.

Carver's habit of giving therapeutic massages--sometimes with a peanut-oil-based product that he had developed--sparked the rumors even more. "Most of his male friends received at least one massage from the professor," writes McMurry. Whether Carver found the opportunity for physical contact with another human being therapeutic for himself as well remains unknown.

Tuskegee administrators were no doubt not the only ones made uneasy by the prospect of Carver's homosexuality being exposed. Carver himself likely experienced anxiety in this regard as well. Indeed, his reluctance to take a lead in the political movement for greater civil rights for African Americans may be related to his homosexuality and his fear that it might be revealed were he to assume a high-profile, confrontational position, thereby not only destroying his career but also damaging the movement.

This fear, if it did indeed exist, would have been altogether justified, as the experience of later African-American homosexuals who took part in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s attests. Bayard Rustin and James Baldwin, for example, were attacked on the basis of their sexuality, and their political effectiveness thereby limited to a certain extent.

Uneasiness about Carver's homosexuality continues to this day. Historian Horace L. Griffin reports that, just a few years ago, while watching a film at the George Washington Carver National Monument, he became curious about "an attractive young man who would occasionally appear with Carver" and who he thought might "be Carver's housemate or possible companion." When he inquired about him, however, the previously voluble park ranger "became visibly uncomfortable with [his] questions about" the young man. The ranger further "admitted that other visitors had raised questions about Carver's sexual orientation."

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