Carver, George Washington
By Aisha Anderson
Graduate Student, Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University
He could have added fortune to fame, but caring for neither, he found happiness and honor in being helpful to the world. Epitaph on the grave of George Washington Carver (quoted in American Experience 1980).
George Washington Carver (1860? - 1943) was an extraordinary individual, dedicated to lifelong learning and the practical application of the sciences. Through a blend of spiritual inspiration, artistic inclination and scientific talent, Carver made many contributions to this world and the environment, such as creating more than 300 peanut-based products, numerous developments for the sweet potato, and developing revolutionary crop rotation theories. His passion and service extended beyond the walls of a classroom, permeating the American South, by educating and empowering farmers in agricultural techniques. In addition to being a gifted teacher, researcher and innovator, Carver was known as a skilled artist, musician and gardener.
Carver was the first black man to study at Iowa State University, earning a Bachelor of Science in 1894. He was then appointed to the faculty and received his master's degree in agriculture and bacterial botany in 1896. Months later, he accepted an invitation, or rather a calling, to make his indelible mark at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, where he served for forty-seven years. This humble genius, who was often referred to as the "plant doctor" or the "peanut man," died in his sleep in Tuskegee on 5 January 1943. Shortly before his death, Carver donated his entire savings to the institute to found the Carver Research Foundation for research in agriculture.
Carver received a number of awards for his achievements. He received an Honorary Doctorate of Science from Simpson College in 1928. He was named a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts of London. He received the Theodore Roosevelt Medal for Valuable Contributions to Science and the Spingarn Medal for Distinguished Service in Agricultural Chemistry by the NAACP. Carver was honored with a United States commemorative postage stamp in both 1947 and 1998. He was elected to the Hall of Fame for Great Americans in 1977 and the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1990. That same year, Iowa State awarded him a Doctor of Humane Letters. His birthplace in Diamond Grove, Missouri, is the first National Monument to honor an African American, a teacher, or even a scientist.
George Washington Carver was born the second son to his mother, Mary. His birthdate was never recorded, through scholars think it was in the early 1860s. He was born into slavery during the Civil War and grew up on a plantation owned by Moses and Susan Carver. As an infant, night raiders (presumed members of the Ku Klux Klan) kidnapped both George and his mother. He was recovered, due to a request put forth by his slave owners, after being found abandoned in Arkansas. His mother, Mary, was never to be seen again and was presumed killed. Equally unfortunate was that his father (enslaved on a nearby plantation) was killed in a logging accident shortly after George's birth. The Carvers became surrogate parents to George, whose surname he took, although they never adopted him. As a sickly child, he spent many hours observing and collecting plants, flowers, rocks, and other natural objects that fascinated and captured his attention. The Carvers encouraged his thirst for knowledge, which prompted him to travel to different parts of the state, in search of schools that would educate blacks. At twelve, George left the couple, traveling to communities in Missouri and Kansas, working odd jobs until he received a high school education (Holt 1943; Elliot 1966).
Carver drifted from place to place in the hope of becoming college educated, experiencing hardships and rejection along the way, due to the color of his skin. While working as head cook at a hotel, he befriended one of the owners who shared a passion for art. The relationship opened a door to his admission into art school at Simpson College in Iowa in 1890. Torn between agriculture and art, witnessing the harsh realities of black artists, Carver chose a more vocational trade. He transferred to Iowa Agricultural College, now known as Iowa State College, where he majored in botany.
After teaching and graduating with a master's degree in 1896, Carver made a life-altering decision when he consented to head the agricultural department at Tuskegee Institute. Without having much needed resources or pay comparable to that he received in his former job, Carver used his imagination to "create living laboratories." He used available materials to create a makeshift lab. His passion encouraged his students to excel despite the odds.
Carver was sought after by noteworthy individuals, such as Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, because of the innovation and importance of his work. He never married, nor had children, but he left an eternal legacy to agriculture, science, and African-American higher education.
Carver, an Environmental Steward
Carver felt that the earth is "not just a treasure house to be ransacked and plundered and to be profited from. [It is] our home and a place of beauty and mystery and God's handiwork" (Stanley 1996, 55). This quote affirms that, as an environmental steward, Carver relied heavily on God's revelation for the simple purposes of things.
Carver made significant impact on how humans serve as stewards and conscientiously utilize the Earth's natural resources. As an agricultural researcher and a chemist, his creative inventions for new uses for common plants opened a door to natural and environmental benefits. His contributions to science were extensive. He developed over 300 commercial applications for peanuts, including milk, cheese, flour, ink, dyes, wood stains, soap, and cosmetics. In addition, Carver developed 118 uses for sweet potatoes, including vinegar, molasses, rubber, ink, and postage stamp glue. His technique of rotating crops was beneficial for soil conservation not only in the South, but across the nation and world. He also extracted the brilliance of colors available in Alabama clay and earth, making paints (Stanley 1996).
Carver's ideas about nature and earth led to developments that revolutionized agriculture in the South. His techniques for crop rotation enlightened Southern farmers on how to cooperate with natural laws, thereby allowing them to grow better crops, prevent erosion and improve production. He discovered that through crop rotation, using peanuts, soybeans and cowpeas, nitrogen was replenished in the soil.
Carver, the Teacher
I have been preparing myself for these many years; feeling as I do that this line of education is the key to unlock the golden door of freedom to our people. George Washington Carver (quoted in Elliott 1966, 104)
As a passionate and humble teacher, George Washington Carver affected many lives and generations. Booker T. Washington requested Carver to assume the position of Director and Instructor of Scientific Agriculture and Dairy Science at Tuskegee Institute. Tuskegee was a school that had attracted many black students from the South, emphasizing vocational skills that would be useful for teaching, technicians and farming.
Carver's dedication as a teacher was demonstrated when he turned down the opportunity to work with Thomas Edison for a $100,000 yearly salary (Kremer 1987). This generous salary would have been a great incentive for many people at the time, but not for Carver, who earned $125 a month during his nearly half a century of work at Tuskegee Institute. Not discouraged by the lack of resources at Tuskegee, Carver viewed his professorship as a calling, a challenge, and an opportunity to uplift his people. Although he was told he was dealing with the worst soil in Alabama, through his resourcefulness, Carver and his students produced a profitable crop every year (after his first year). People from all over the world, including Russia, Poland, China, Japan, India, and Africa came to Tuskegee Institute to listen to Dr. Carver's techniques of agriculture and his successful experiences in the rural South. His achievements at Tuskegee helped African Americans gain respect in the fields of science and technology.
Carver, the Southern Farmer's Friend
Frustrated with the lack of hope displayed by many black Southern farmers, George Washington Carver began the Farmers Institute. He selflessly shared his knowledge with the rural farmer - insights of the land and how it operated with nature. He reached day laborers, sharecroppers and tenant farmers through his movable school on wheels. With his "Tuskegee Wagon," Carver visited those who were willing to listen, teaching insights that extended their understanding of farming beyond their natural survival mentality, including land conservation techniques. While he provided food for their soul, Carver also fed them. This gave him a natural opportunity to teach nutrition information, advocating the benefits of fresh fruit and vegetables. He also offered home improvement ideas and medicinal advice, such as the cure for pellagra. Carver was most pleased with the humble beginnings of the movable school, once operated by a rickety mule-drawn cart. It later became known as the "Jesup Agricultural Wagon," a fully equipped traveling experiment station (Elliot 1966).
Carver, the Advocate
George Washington Carver was an agriculturalist advocate when the need arose. He spoke on behalf of Congress, to the House Ways and Means Committee, as a supporting witness on a pending bill that proposed to place a tariff on the peanut. Also, when the United Peanut Association of America was formed, the group asked Carver to represent them on the 1921 congressional committee in Washington. Carver was adamantly against the exploitation of land, which he felt depleted the nature God had provided (Stanley 1996).
Ties to the Philanthropic Sector
"It is not the style of clothes one wears, neither the kind of automobile one drives, nor the amount of money one has in the bank, that counts. These mean nothing. It is simply service that measures success." George Washington Carver (as quoted at GWCNM "Carver's Quotes")
The degree of Carver's impact extends beyond his agricultural contributions, encompassing his service to help others obtain a higher quality of life. Carver contributed to the economic improvement of the Southern farmer by offering alternative crops beneficial to them and their land. He brightened the homes of impoverished men and women throughout the South and gave hope to the next generation of farmers. As a teacher, Carver used a personal, hands-on method and was not limited by the walls of a classroom. Yet, his vision extended beyond his students and Southern rural farmers to the national and international communities. He strived to help his students to view the world as one.
Though Carver prides his success on service, his environmental contributions were substantial. He conscientiously utilized bio-based products and industrial products made from renewable resources rather than those made from scarce or non-renewable resources. Environmentally, his contributions were viewed by some as an agricultural revolution (Stanley 1996; Holt 1943). He was an extraordinary man who recognized the natural relationships of living things, both plants and people.
He was a deeply religious man who treasured the world of nature and saw himself as a vehicle by which the secrets of nature could be understood and harnessed for the good of mankind. That was his mission in life, and his reward for performing this mission was the simple knowledge that he was performing well God's will. (Kremer 1987, 17)
When Carver died in 1943, he was still earning the same $125 a month he had agreed to as an acceptable income forty-seven years prior; he had refused to accept a single increase in salary. When asked why, Carver humbly responded, "What would I do with more money? I already have all the earth" ( George Washington Carver 1980). Carver's explicit desire was to serve and uplift his people. He declined lucrative career opportunities with other institutions, to keep his commitment of sharing knowledge with the poor black farmer. He was committed to making an impact, which he did for his people, his students, the scientific community, farmers, community members, policy makers, and food consumers around the world.
Key Related Ideas
- Agricultural chemist : A scientist specializing in chemistry and the science, art, and business of cultivating soil, producing crops, and raising livestock; farmer
- Botanist : One who specializes in the study of plants
- Crop rotation : The agricultural process of growing different types of crops at different seasons to replenish the soil
- Environmentalist : One who advocates for, or works toward, protecting the natural environment from destruction or pollution.
Important People Related to the Topic
Morris K. Jesup was a New York philanthropist who made his money in banking and manufacturing. Jesup donated the funds necessary to upgrade Carver's movable learning cart to a mobile teaching wagon, which he used to educate Southern farmers about agricultural techniques. His movable school became known as the Jesup Agricultural Wagon.
President Theodore Roosevelt (1830-1908) was the twenty-sixth President of the United States of America. George Washington Carver advised him on racial problems and policies. In 1939, Carver received the Theodore Roosevelt medal, which stated, "To a scientist humbly seeking the guidance of god and a liberator to the men of the white race as well as the black" (Elliott 1966, 221).
Henry A. Wallace was elected Vice President of the United States in 1940, under President Roosevelt. As a student and mentee of Dr. Carver at Iowa State University, Wallace was intrigued by his teaching, which sparked his lifelong interest in plant genetics. Wallace was also the founder of the largest seed corn company in the world, Pioneer Hybrid.
Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) was the founder and head of the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute for black students, established in 1897 in Tuskegee, Alabama. He was one of the most influential black leaders and educators of his time and extended the invitation for Carver to lead the agricultural department at Tuskegee Institute, a school that advocated vocational education.
Related Nonprofit Organizations
The Carver Research Foundation was formed in 1940 to conduct agricultural research at Tuskegee Institute. Currently, the university's multimillion-dollar Carver Research Foundation and George Washington Carver Agricultural Experiment Station received worldwide attention through noted research activities in agriculture, the natural sciences, and other pure and applied sciences.
The George Washington Carver Museum was authorized by the trustees of Tuskegee Institute in 1938 at the request of its president, Frederick D. Patterson. The Carver Museum was dedicated by President Henry Ford in 1941. It houses Dr. Carver's extensive collections of native plants, minerals, birds and vegetables; his products created from the peanut, sweet potato and various clays; and his numerous paintings, drawings, and textile art. Also on display are plaques, medals and artistic work created in tribute to Dr. Carver.
The George Washington Carver National Monument , preserved by the National Park Service, is located in Diamond, Missouri. The setting includes the 1881 Historic Moses Carver house and the Carver cemetery. His birthplace was designated a national monument, the first honor bestowed to a black person, on 14 July 1943.
The George Washington Carver Outdoor School was developed in 1990 to help young people develop a rapport with nature and to better understand themselves and their relationship to the world around them. The city-wide nonprofit school allows children exposure to the outdoors, including activities that foster respect for nature, such as hiking expeditions and camping trips.
Tuskegee Institute was established in 1880 by an act of the Alabama State Legislature. The school's first President, Dr. Booker T. Washington, officially opened the Normal School for Colored Teachers on 4 July 1881, which later became known as the Tuskegee Institute.
The College of Agriculture - Iowa State Fair exhibit section of the Iowa State University's Web site , at http://www.ag.iastate.edu/carver.html , presents a celebration of the legacy of its first African-American student and faculty member, George Washington Carver.
The Faces of Science: African Americans in the Sciences website https://webfiles.uci.edu/mcbrown/display/faces.html provides general historical background on African-American men and women who have contributed to the advancement of science and engineering. The site contains a synopsis of Carver's contributions and patented inventions. It also provides a list of reference materials for further research on Carver, at https://webfiles.uci.edu/mcbrown/display/sources.html.
George Washington Carver National Monument Web site provides information on the national park dedicated to George Washington Carver and includes his boyhood home located just outside of Diamond, Missouri. The site contains biographical information, photographs, Carver quotes, and information on the 210-acre park. Visit at http://www.nps.gov/gwca/ .
The National Inventors Hall of Fame Web site presents Carver's accomplishments, biography, and the impact of his inventions. See " George Washington Carver" entry at http://www.invent.org/hall_of_fame/30.html .
The National Park Service: Tuskegee Institute National Historic Site Web site , at
http://www.nps.gov/tuin/ , provides a direct link to the Tuskegee Institute National Historic Site, located on the campus of present day Tuskegee University, which became a part of the National Park System in 1974.
Tuskegee University Web site , at http://www.tuskegee.edu , provides i nformation about current students, faculty and programs, as well as a tribute to Carver in the "History and Archives" section.
Bibliography and Internet Sources
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American Experience . "George Washington Carver." PBS, 1980.
Borth, Christy. Pioneers of Plenty: The Story of Chemurgy . Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1939.
Dies, Edward Jerome. Titans of the Soil . Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 1949.
Elliott, Lawrence. George Washington Carver: The Man Who Overcame . Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1966.
Erbach, Donald C. and Frank Flora. "Biobased products: America's second green revolution, " Agricultural Research 50 (2002): 2.
The Faces of Science: African Americans in the Sciences. "Homepage." Princeton University. https://webfiles.uci.edu/mcbrown/display/faces.html.
Ferrell, John S. Fruits of Creation: A Look at Global Sustainability as Seen through the Eyes of George Washington Carver . Shakopee, Minn.: Macalester Park Publishing Co., 1995.
George Washington Carver National Monument. "Carver Quotes." National Park Service. http://www.nps.gov/gwca/expanded/quotes.htm .
Haber, Louis. Black Pioneers of Science and Invention . New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1970.
Holt, Rackham. George Washington Carver: An American Biography. New York: Doubleday, Doran and Company, 1943.
Kitchens, John W. and Lynne B. Kitchens, eds. Guide to the Microfilm Edition of the George Washington Carver papers at Tuskegee Institute . Tuskegee, Alabama: Tuskegee Institute, 1975. (Guide accompanies #1-67 microfilm reels.)
Klein, Aaron E. Hidden Contributors: Black Scientists and Inventors in America . Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1971.
Kremer, Gary R., ed. George Washington Carver in His Own Words . Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri, 1987. ISBN: 0826207855 (1991 paperback).
McMurry, Linda O. George Washington Carver: Scientist and Symbol . New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.
Means, Florence Crannell. Carver's George: A Biography of George Washington Carver . Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1952.
Miller, Basil William. George Washington Carver: God's Ebony Scientist . Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Publishing House, 1943.
Podesta, James J. "George Washington Carver, 1861(?)-1943." In Contemporary Black Biography: Profiles from the International Black Community , edited by Barbara Carlisle Bigelow. Detroit: Gale Group, 1994. ISBN: 0810385589.
Stanley, Phyllis M. American Environmental Heroes. Springfield, New Jersey: Enslow Publishers, 1996. ISBN: 0894906305.
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