George Washington Carver (circa 1864 – January 5, 1943)
✪ George Washington Carver (c. 1864 – January 5, 1943) was an American agricultural scientist and inventor who promoted alternative crops to cotton and discovered farming methods to prevent soil depletion. He is widely regarded as one of the most prominent black scientists of the early 20th Century.
While a professor at Tuskegee Institute, Carver developed advanced techniques to improve types of soils depleted by repeated plantings of cotton. He recommended poor farmers grow and alternate other crops such as peanuts and sweet potatoes as a source of their own food and to improve their quality of life. The most popular of his 44 practical bulletins for farmers contained 105 food recipes using peanuts.
Carver was born into slavery, in Diamond Grove, now Diamond, Newton County, Missouri, near Crystal Place, sometime in the early 1860s. The date of his birth is uncertain and was not known to Carver; but it was before slavery was abolished in Missouri, which occurred in January 1865 during the American Civil War.
When George was only a week old, he, his sister and mother were kidnapped by night raiders from Arkansas. George’s brother, James, was rushed to safety from the kidnappers. The kidnappers sold the trio in Kentucky. His enslaver, Moses Carver hired John Bentley to find them, but he could only locate the infant George.
After slavery was abolished, Moses Carver and his wife Susan, raised George and his older brother, James, as their own children. They encouraged George to continue his intellectual pursuits and “Aunt Susan” taught him the basics of reading and writing.
Black people were not allowed at the public school in Diamond Grove, so George decided to go to a school for black children 10 miles south, in Neosho. When he reached the town, he found the school closed for the night. He slept in a nearby barn. By his own account, the next morning he met a kind woman, Mariah Watkins, from whom he wished to rent a room. When he identified himself as “Carver’s George,” as he had done his entire life, she replied that from now on his name was “George Carver.” George liked Mariah Watkins, and her words, “You must learn all you can, then go back out into the world and give your learning back to the people,” made a great impression on him.
Carver headed the modern organic movement in the southern agricultural system. Carver’s background for his interest in organic farming sprouted from his father being killed during the Civil War; and, when his mother was kidnapped by Confederate slave raiders. Now an orphan, Carver found comfort in botany when he was just 11 years old in Kansas. Carver learned about herbal medicine, natural pesticides, and natural fertilizers that yielded plentiful crops from his caretaker. When crops and house plants were dying, he would use his knowledge and go and nurse them back to health. As a teenager, he was called the “plant doctor.”
Carver attended a series of schools before earning his diploma at Minneapolis High School in Minneapolis, Kansas. During his time spent in Minneapolis there was another George Carver in town, which caused some confusion over receiving mail. Carver chose a middle initial at random, and began requesting letters to him be addressed to George W. Carver. Someone once asked if the “W” stood for Washington, and Carver grinned and said “Why not?” However, he never used Washington as his middle name, and instead signed his name as either George W. Carver or simply George Carver.
Carver applied to several colleges before being accepted at Highland University in Highland, Kansas. When he arrived, they refused to let him attend because of his race.
Carver next homesteaded a claim where he maintained a small conservatory of plants, flowers and a geological collection. He manually plowed 17 acres of the claim, planting rice, corn, Indian corn and garden produce; as well as various fruit trees, forest trees, and shrubbery. He also earned money by doing odd jobs in town and worked as a ranch hand.
In early 1888, Carver obtained a $300 loan at the Bank of Ness City for education. By June he left the area. In 1890, Carver began studying art and piano at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa. His art teacher, Etta Budd, recognized Carver’s talent for painting flowers and plants. She encouraged him to study botany at Iowa State Agricultural College (now Iowa State University) in Ames.
Carver’s Bachelor’s thesis for a degree in Agriculture was “Plants as Modified by Man”, dated 1894. Iowa State University professors Joseph Budd and Luis Pammel convinced Carver to continue there for his master’s degree. Carver did research at the Iowa Experiment Station under Pammel during the next two years. His work at the experiment station in plant pathology and mycology first gained him national recognition and respect as a botanist. Carver received his Master of Science degree in 1896. Carver taught as the first black faculty member at Iowa State.
In 1896, Booker T. Washington, the first principal and president of the Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University), invited Carver to head its Agriculture Department. Carver taught there for 47 years, developing the department into a strong research center and working with two additional college presidents during his tenure. He taught methods of crop rotation, introduced several alternative cash crops for farmers that would also improve the soil of areas heavily cultivated in cotton, initiated research into crop products (chemurgy), and taught generations of black students farming techniques for self-sufficiency.
From 1915 to 1923, Carver concentrated on research and experimenting with new uses for peanuts, sweet potatoes, soybeans, pecans, and other crops, as well as having his assistants research and compile existing uses. This work, and especially his speaking to a national conference of the Peanut Growers Association in 1920 and in testimony before Congress in 1921 to support passage of a tariff on imported peanuts, brought him wide publicity and increasing renown. It was Carver’s promotion of peanuts which gained him the most public notice.
Carver developed techniques to improve soils depleted by repeated plantings of cotton. Together with other agricultural experts, he urged farmers to restore nitrogen to their soils by practicing systematic crop rotation: alternating cotton crops with plantings of sweet potatoes or legumes, such as peanuts, soybeans and cowpeas. These crops both restored nitrogen to the soil and were good for human consumption.
Following the crop rotation practice resulted in improved cotton yields and gave farmers alternative cash crops. To train farmers to successfully rotate and cultivate the new crops, Carver developed an agricultural extension program for Alabama that was similar to the one at Iowa State. To encourage better nutrition in the South, he widely distributed recipes using the alternative crops.
In 1916, Carver was made a member of the Royal Society of Arts in England, one of only a handful of Americans at that time to receive this honor.
During the last two decades of his life, Carver seemed to enjoy his celebrity status. Three American presidents, Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge and Franklin Roosevelt met with him; and, the Crown Prince of Sweden studied with him for three weeks. From 1923 to 1933, Carver toured white Southern colleges for the Commission on Interracial Cooperation.
Color film of Carver shot in 1937 at the Tuskegee Institute by African American surgeon Allen Alexander was added to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress in 2019. The 12 minutes of footage includes Carver in his apartment, office and laboratory, as well as images of him tending flowers and displaying his paintings.
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Carver had been extremely frugal for his entire life. In his seventies he established a legacy by creating a museum of his work, as well as the George Washington Carver Foundation at Tuskegee in 1938 to continue agricultural research. He donated nearly US$60,000 (equivalent to $1,155,035 in 2021) in his life savings to create the foundation.
Carver never married. At age 40, he began a courtship with Sarah L. Hunt, an elementary school teacher and the sister-in-law of Warren Logan, Treasurer of Tuskegee Institute. This lasted three years until she took a teaching job in California.
Even as an adult, Carver spoke with a high pitch. Historian Linda O. McMurry noted that he “was a frail and sickly child” who often suffered “from a severe case of whooping cough and frequent bouts of what was called croup.” Until his death, the high pitch of his voice would startle all who met him. He also suffered from frequent chest congestion and loss of voice.
Carver believed he could have faith both in God and science and integrated both of them into his life. He testified on many occasions that his faith in Jesus was the only mechanism by which he could effectively pursue and perform the art of science. Carver became a Christian when he was still a young boy, as he wrote in connection to his conversion in 1931:
I was just a mere boy when converted, hardly ten years old. There isn’t much of a story to it. God just came into my heart one afternoon while I was alone in the ‘loft’ of our big barn while I was shelling corn to carry to the mill to be ground into meal.
A dear little white boy, one of our neighbors, about my age came by one Saturday morning, and in talking and playing he told me he was going to Sunday school tomorrow morning. I was eager to know what a Sunday school was. He said they sang hymns and prayed. I asked him what prayer was and what they said. I do not remember what he said; only remember that as soon as he left I climbed up into the ‘loft,’ knelt down by the barrel of corn and prayed as best I could. I do not remember what I said. I only recall that I felt so good that I prayed several times before I quit.
My brother and myself were the only colored children in that neighborhood and of course, we could not go to church or Sunday school, or school of any kind. That was my simple conversion, and I have tried to keep the faith.
He was as concerned with his students’ character development as he was with their intellectual development. He compiled a list of “eight cardinal virtues” whose possession defines “a lady or a gentleman”:
- Be clean both inside and out.
- Who neither looks up to the rich nor down on the poor.
- Who loses, if needs be, without squealing.
- Who wins without bragging.
- Who is always considerate of women, children and old people.
- Who is too brave to lie.
- Who is too generous to cheat.
- Who takes his share of the world and lets other people have theirs.
Upon returning home one day, Carver took a bad fall down a flight of stairs; he was found unconscious by a maid who took him to a hospital. Carver died January 5, 1943, at the age of 79 from complications resulting from this fall. He was buried next to Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee University.
On his grave was written, “He could have added fortune to fame, but caring for neither, he found happiness and honor in being helpful to the world.”✪
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