George Washington Carver
January 1, 1864 – January 5, 1943
Notable: Scientist and Inventor
George Washington Carver was born into slavery in Diamond, Missouri towards the tail end of the American Civil War. As frequently occurred in the case of enslaved children, the exact date and year of his birth were not recorded. Though Carver is believed to have been born in either January or June of 1864 and sometimes January 1, 1864, is used as a placeholder for his birthday.
Carver’s father, Giles, had lived on a neighboring plantation and died before his birth. His mother was a 22-year-old enslaved woman named Mary who had been purchased by a White slaveholder, Moses Carver, at the age of 13-years-old to work on his 240-acre plantation. When Carver was a baby, he, his mother, and older sister were kidnapped by raiders from Arkansas for sale in Kentucky. Moses Carter hired help to retrieve them but only Carter was found and his mother and sister were never located or heard from again.
Now with both parents gone, Carter and his older brother, Jim, were left in the care of Moses Carter and his wife, Susan. When the Civil War ended in 1865, the boys became free but remained on the plantation as Carter was still a baby and it seems Jim was likely still a child. Carter was a sickly child and too frail for physical labor so he remained close to the cabin and helped with the household chores and garden.
There were no local schools that were open to educating Black children so Susan Carter became Carter’s first teacher. She taught him to read and write as well as basics about plants and herbal medicines. This sparked an early interest in botany and combined with what he saw and learned while exploring the area earned him an early reputation as a “plant doctor”.
In hopes of furthering his education, at 10-years-old, Carver moved about 10-miles away to attend an all-Black school in Neosho, Missouri. He stayed with a childless Black couple, Andrew and Mariah Watkins, in exchange for him helping around the house. The education he received at the school was underwhelming but during his stay, Mrs. Watkins shared her knowledge of herbs and religion.
After two years, Carver moved once again in search of an opportunity to obtain a quality education. He would spend most of the next decade moving from town to town, supporting himself, and paying his way through school by doing household work. After moving to Kansas, Carver graduated from high school in 1880 and was initially admitted to Highland College but the administrators revoked his acceptance when they learned that he was Black.
Discouraged by the rejection, Carver claimed a homestead where he nurtured his interests by performing biological and botanical experiments, collecting geological specimens, and refining his artistic skills. Carver applied and was admitted to Simpson College in Iowa where he studied art and music. His art primarily focused on botanical specimens which led to him transferring to the botany program at the Iowa State Agricultural College.
Carver became Iowa State’s first Black student and upon graduation, the first Black person, at least in America, to earn a Bachelor of Science. His undergraduate research into soybean plant fungal infections was so impressive that he was invited to remain and continue his studies at the college’s graduate school. During graduate school, Carver established himself as a skilled and knowledgeable botanist. After Carver completed his master’s degree, offers began to flow in from other schools for him to join their faculties. The best offer came from the Tuskegee Institute so that was the one that he accepted.
Carver’s primary role at Tuskegee was to lead the school’s agriculture department. In return, he received a generous salary along with a room for both himself and his plant specimens. The opportunity was great on paper but the position came with several challenges. Initially, farmers were not particularly interested in new farming methods and most students were attending college as a means to pursue careers outside of farming.
A rather contentious relationship developed between Carver and Booker T. Washington who had recruited him to teach at the school. Carver was passionate about agricultural research but less interested in spending time on teaching, administrative duties, or managing the school’s farms. Despite the tension, Carver developed the agricultural department into a nationally well-respected institution and was well-liked among the students.
After joining the faculty at Tuskegee, Carver spent the rest of his life at the school. He declined countless offers from other institutions in favor of continuing his work and contributing his talents to the progress of Black people by educating Black students. He taught farmers who attended conventions on campus as well as via his mobile school about crop rotation and diversification which helped many avoid the complete devastation of soil depletion and agricultural pests.
Carver researched and experimented with soil replenishing crops such as peanuts, soybeans, and sweet potatoes. These crops could also double as healthy sources of protein that would improve the Southern diet. Farmers adopted Carver’s idea of planting and eating soil-replenishing crops in their natural form. But while tobacco and cotton caused soil depletion, they generated greater demand.
In response, Carver worked with peanuts and sweet potatoes in his laboratory to develop a variety of commercial products. Outside of basic eating, he developed 300 products from peanuts and 118 from sweet potatoes, though some of the products never really caught on. This decreased commercial reliance on cotton making Southern farmers less susceptible to cotton price fluctuations and crop issues.
George Washington Carver died at the age of 78-years-old following a fall. A few years before his death, Carver had donated his life savings to Tuskegee. He was buried on the school’s campus just a few feet away from Booker T. Washington.
- Biography.com Editors, ed. 2021. “George Washington Carver.” Biography.com. A&E Networks Television. March 29, 2021. https://www.biography.com/scientist/george-washington-carver.
- “George Washington Carver.” 2021. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. March 17, 2021. https://www.britannica.com/biography/George-Washington-Carver.
- “George Washington Carver.” 2021. SHSMO Historic Missourians. February 11, 2021. https://historicmissourians.shsmo.org/george-washington-carver.
- History.com Editors, ed. 2021. “George Washington Carver.” History.com. A&E Television Networks. February 1, 2021. https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/george-washington-carver.
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