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George Washington Carver

agricultural researcher

George Washington Carver

George Washington Carver was born into slavery near Diamond Grove (now Diamond), Missouri, sometime during the Spring of 1864. His owner, Moses Carver, had purchased his mother in 1855; the identity of his father is unknown. When he was an infant, he, a sister, and his mother were kidnapped by Confederate raiders and sold in Arkansas. Moses Carver hired a man to find them, but only George was found alive. During his time of captivity in Arkansas, Carver contracted a respiratory disease that left him with a permanently weakened constitution. Because of this, he was not required to do hard labor, helping around the house instead. He spent much of his free time wandering the fields examining the varieties of wild plants and soon gained a reputation for being able to "heal sick plants."

The childless Carvers raised George and his brother as their own children, even teaching both boys to read. George's intellect impressed the Carvers (and their neighbors), and they encouraged him to pursue a formal education. Unfortunately, George was not allowed to attend the school in Diamond Grove because he was black. Learning that there was a school for blacks in Neosho, Missouri, Carver resolved to make his way there, but found the school closed for the night upon his arrival. The morning after his arrival he met a woman named Mariah Watkins, from whom he rented a room. Miss Watkins, immediately impressed by Carver's intellect, told him "You must learn all you can, then go back out into the world and give your learning back to the people."

At the age of thirteen, Carver relocated to Fort Scott, Kansas, where he hoped to attend high school, but left after witnessing the beating death of a black man at the hands of a white mob. He subsequently attended a series of schools before finally earning his diploma at the Minneapolis, Kansas, High School. Carver supported himself during this period by doing laundry, cooking, and farming. After receiving his diploma he moved to Olathe, Kansas, where he started a laundry business.

Now desiring a college education, Carver spent several years trying to find a college that would accept him, finally gaining acceptance at Highland College in Highland, Kansas. However, when the college found out he was black, he was turned away. In 1887, he was accepted to Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa, as its first black student. At Simpson, Carver majored in painting and piano, but one of his art teachers convinced him to transfer to Iowa State Agricultural College (now Iowa State University) to study agriculture.

Transferring to Iowa in 1891, Carver became that college's first black student. In order to avoid confusion with another George Carver in his classes, he began to use the name George Washington Carver. While at Iowa he was a leader in the YMCA and the debate club, worked in the dining rooms and as a trainer for the athletic teams, and was captain of the campus military regiments. His poetry was published in the student newspaper, and two of his paintings were exhibited at the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago. After getting his Bachelor's Degree in 1894, Carver became the college's first black faculty member. By the time he completed his Master's Degree in Agriculture in 1896, Carver had impressed the faculty as an extremely talented student in horticulture and mycology, as well as a gifted teacher of freshman biology.

Had Carver been white he probably could have gotten a well-paid position at virtually any agricultural and/or horticultural facility of his choice, but his race severely limited his choices. In 1896, he accepted an offer from Booker T. Washington to head the agricultural department at the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute (now Tuskegee University) in Tuskegee, Alabama. Carver remained at Tuskegee for the rest of his life.

At Tuskegee, Carver taught classes and operated the only all-black agricultural experiment station, but he proved inept at administration, provoking frequent clashes with the principal. His research, however, proved extremely invaluable to the college, as well as to the farmers of the South. Taking an interest in the plight of Southern farmers working with soil depleted by repeated crops of cotton, Carver advocated employing the nitrogen cycle by alternating cotton crops with other crops (including peanuts and sweet potatoes) to restore nitrogen and other nutrients to the soil. To enhance the attractiveness of alternative crops, Carver developed a variety of uses for each.

Carver's best-known work was with peanuts, which appealed to him as an inexpensive source of protein that did not deplete the soil as much as cotton did. He devised more than 300 uses for the peanut, including glue, printer's ink, dyes, punches, varnishing cream, marble, rubbing oils, and Worcestershire sauce. Contrary to popular belief, however, peanut butter was not among the peanut products developed by Carver; that invention actually preceded him. Carver also developed numerous uses for other crops, including sweet potatoes and pecans.

In 1915, following the funeral of Booker T. Washington, Carver was praised by Theodore Roosevelt. In 1916, he became one of only a handful of Americans to be voted a member of the Royal Society of Arts in England. In 1921, Carver was invited by the National Association of Peanut Growers to testify before Congress regarding the imposition of tariffs on imported peanuts. Initially given but ten minutes to present his arguments, the committee repeatedly extended his time and applauded his presentation; the tariff was passed the following year.

Despite his fame, Carver was always prepared to give help to anyone who sought it, and always gave it without charge. Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge and Franklin Delano Roosevelt all sought out Carver, as did the Crown Prince of Sweden, Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi, and even industrialist Henry Ford. Ford went so far as to build a laboratory for Carver and conducted research with him there.

Among the many awards and honors Carver received during his life are:
the Spingarn Medal from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (1923)
an honorary Doctorate from Simpson College (1928)
the Roosevelt Medal for Outstanding Contribution to Southern Agriculture (1942)

In addition to the above, Carver was also honored by having the George Washington Carver Foundation at Tuskegee University established in his honor in 1940. In 1941, the George Washington Carver Museum was dedicated at Tuskegee.

Carver died in Tuskegee on January 5, 1943, of complications resulting from a bad fall down a flight of stairs.

On July 14, 1943, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt dedicated $30,000 for the George Washington Carver National Monument near Diamond, Missouri. This 210-acre site includes the home of Moses Carver, the Carver Family Cemetery, a museum, and a 3/4-mile nature trail. In 1977, Carver was inducted into the Hall of Fame for Great Americans. In 1990, he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. In 1994, Iowa State University awarded Carver the Doctor of Humane Letters.

SEE ALSO
Chicago World's Fair
Booker T. Washington
Tuskegee University
Theodore Roosevelt
Calvin Coolidge
Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Mahatma Gandhi
Henry Ford

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This page was last updated on 06/14/2017.