“The primary idea in all of my work was to help the farmer and fill the poor man's empty dinner pail. My idea is to help the "man farthest down," this is why I have made every process just as simply as I could to put it within his reach.”
-George Washington Carver
In celebration of Black History Month, join us every Tuesday in February to learn about and celebrate advancements made by African Americans in agriculture, education and science.
George Washington Carver is one of the most widely recognized black scientists in American history; however, most of us never come to know all of the great work that Carver accomplished during his life. At a young age, many children are introduced to his work with peanuts and erroneously associate him with the invention of peanut butter. His impacts on science and agriculture go way beyond peanuts.
George Washington Carver as a Teenager, Image courtesy of the National Parks Service.
George Washington Carver never knew the exact date of his birth, but he believed he was born in January or June of 1864 near Diamond, Mississippi. Carver was born enslaved in the household of Moses and Susan Carver. George Carver unfortunately never knew his mother Mary, because when he was just a newborn his family was captured and sold by slave raiders. George was returned to the Carvers, but he never saw his mother again. After slavery was abolished in 1865, Carver and his brother James were raised by the Carvers, who reportedly treated the boys as their own. Carver spent much of his time with his foster mother learning different household skills and was introduced to gardening for the first time.
Home of Moses Carver, Image courtesy of the Library of Congress
George Carver was a bright child and was encouraged by his foster family to pursue an education. At the age of 11, Carver went to a neighboring town to attend an all-black school, as he was not allowed to attend the local public school which was for white children only. Over the next decade or so, Carver spent his time traveling west and pursuing an education. Eventually, he was encouraged to pursue higher education by another white family who had taken him in. He was admitted to Simpson College in central Iowa where he initially studied art. Under the advice of a professor, Carver applied and was admitted to Iowa State Agricultural College (now Iowa State University) where he stayed until the completion of his master's degree in 1896.
After his graduation, he was contacted by Booker T. Washington (from whom Carver was inspired to take the name Washington) and was asked to join the staff of the Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama. The Tuskegee Institute was a historically black land-grant university, now known as Tuskegee University. Washington convinced the trustees of the institute to create a brand-new agricultural school and Carver was the man that Washington wanted to run it. Carver would work at the Tuskegee Institute for the rest of his life.
George Washington Carver with Staff of Tuskegee Institute, Image courtesy of the Library of Congress
At the Tuskegee Institute, Carver preferred research and experimentation over teaching. Much of his time at the institute was dedicated to helping Southern farmers increase their crop yield. Farmers in the South had been struggling for many years due to the cultivation of cotton. Cotton was a highly profitable cash crop, but the plant stripped the soil of its nutrients and was reaching a breaking point. Southern farmers, especially black sharecroppers, were unable to afford expensive fertilizers that would help this issue. Through his research, Carver began advocating crop rotation to help farmers enrich the soil. By planting nitrogen-rich legumes such as peanuts or soybeans, the soil would begin to replenish its nutrients.
As the farmers instituted the practices advocated by Carver, there became a surplus of peanuts which farmers were unable to sell. There was not a large market for peanuts or soybeans, so Carver worked to find alternative uses for the crops. Carver ended up developing over 300 different products from peanuts alone! Not all of these products became widely used, but his ingenuity was rewarded by the House of Representatives when he spoke on behalf of the peanut industry and got the crop protected by a tariff. This is how his association with peanuts was born.
George Washington Carver in Experimental Field at Tuskegee Institute, Library of Congress
Though not one for teaching in the classroom, Carver worked hard to educate Southern farmers on scientific issues that affected their work. In 1906, Carver created the “Jesup Wagon” which he used to bring his teachings directly to rural farmers in Alabama. This “movable school” came prepared with soil samples, tools, plants, recipes, etc. which would be used to teach. Carver made his teachings even more widely available by publishing bulletins on different subjects. Between 1898 and 1943 Carver published 44 bulletins on topics such as the results of his crop experiments, advice on growing techniques, and even recipes.
Jesup Agricultural Wagon, Tuskegee University
Carver was a minor celebrity for the last couple decades of his life. He was reportedly good friends with Henry Ford, met Mahatma Gandhi, and was even asked by Joseph Stalin to tour the Soviet Union. Above all, Carver was dedicated to doing good. He spent his entire career finding ways to better the lives of black sharecroppers and farmers and the South as a whole. He is remembered in history as an altruistic man, devoted to education and the betterment of others. After his death in 1943, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had a monument built in his honor, something which was previously only awarded to former presidents. In the congressional hearing, this statement was made about Carver: “Occasionally there moves across the stage of time a historic figure, a creative teacher, a profound thinker, a humble servant, or an inspiring teacher. George Washington Carver was all of these.”
Sources and Recommended Reading
Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia. "George Washington Carver." Encyclopedia Britannica, January 1, 2021. https://www.britannica.com/biography/George-Washington-Carver.
“George Washington Carver.” The Carver Museum, December 8, 2020. https://www.carveraz.org/gwc/.
“George Washington Carver: A National Agricultural Library Digital Exhibit.” United States Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Library. United States Department of Agriculture. Accessed January 2, 2021. https://www.nal.usda.gov/exhibits/ipd/carver/exhibits/show/bulletins/carver.
History.com Editors. “George Washington Carver.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, October 27, 2009. https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/george-washington-carver.
“Jesup Agricultural Wagon.” Encyclopedia of Alabama. Accessed January 2, 2021. http://encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/m-5685.
“The Legacy of Dr. George Washington Carver.” Tuskegee University. Accessed January 2, 2021. https://www.tuskegee.edu/support-tu/george-washington-carver.