In an era where segregation and racist doctrine ruled the South, white and black farmers alike had the work of a former slave to thank for new and alternative farming ideas that helped maintain and improve farming economies across the South. The humble and quiet genius of George Washington Carver is often overlooked when we mention the many great American scientists and inventors, but his inventiveness directly improved the lives of many people, and Carver deserves proper recognition.
George was born into slavery in Diamond, Missouri in 1864. Along with his mother and sister, he was kidnapped as an infant and brought to neighboring Arkansas. Moses Carver, who owned George’s family, was only able to rescue George, and Moses and his wife raised and educated George and his brother James after the Civil War ended in 1865.
After leaving the Carver’s home in his mid-teens, George would support himself as a household worker, hotel cook, laundryman and homesteader. After Highland College rescinded an acceptance offer when they learned of his race, in 1890 George enrolled at Simpson College in Iowa, studying art and music. George became very skilled at botanical sketches and drawings while at Simpson. The following year he moved to Ames, Iowa where he became the first black student at the Iowa State Agricultural College (which later became Iowa State University). He was encouraged by his professors to pursue a master’s degree at the school
The great educator Booker T. Washington recruited Carver to run the Agricultural Department at the Tuskegee Institute in 1896, sending him a letter in which Washington said Carver would have “the challenge of bringing people from degradation, poverty and waste” to live more fruitful lives. Under Carver’s leadership, the department became recognized nationally for its achievements and studies, helping to enhance the status of what had become Tuskegee University.
George led studies in crop rotation and developing alternatives to cotton as a cash crop as the devastation of the boll weevil infestation of 1892 continued to impact cotton growers across the South. During this time, the widespread planting of cotton as a single crop had left a large portion of southern farmland worthless and exhausted. Carver encouraged the planting of soybeans and peanuts to help restore nitrogen to the soil. These plants would also end up adding more protein to the average southern diet!
Carver recognized that while peanuts would help soil quality, they were not necessarily needed in abundance. This drove Carver to develop alternate uses for the crop. He developed more than 300 products from peanuts (including milk, plastics, paints, medicinal oils, dyes, cosmetics, soap, ink, and wood stains). He also developed products from sweet potatoes, such as molasses, flour, vinegar, synthetic rubber and postage stamp glue.
Carver used his recognition to promote science and the important work being done at Tuskegee. He brought his inventions to the people through his mobile classroom (called the Jesup Wagon, named after a New York financier who supported the program).
His accomplishments were honored both nationally and globally. President Theodore Roosevelt sought recommendations from Carver on agricultural issues, and Carver provided nutritional advice to India’s Mahatma Ghandi, whom George also referred to as a friend. He famously turned down a job offer from Thomas Edison and an invitation from Joseph Stalin to tour the Soviet Union’s cotton plantations.
The frugal Carver used his considerable savings to establish the George Washington Carver Museum, Cultural and Genealogical Center in Austin, Texas. He also established a foundation at Tuskegee to support agricultural research.
Carver’s accomplishments are honored at a national monument just west of Diamond, Missouri. The complex features a statue of Carver, a museum, cemetery and natural trail. It was the first national monument built in honor of an African American.
Carver’s brilliance, selflessness and humility are perhaps best summed up in an epitaph that reads “He could have added fortune to fame, but caring for neither, he found happiness and honor in being helpful to the world”.
Sources \ Credits: Photographs of George Washington Carver credited to Underwood Archives \ UIG
Text sources include:
George Washington Carver by Tonya Holden (Abrams Books)