George W Carver was born towards the end of the Civil War. His mother, Mary, was a slave who worked for a German couple named Moses and Susan Carver. The Carvers raised George’s mother as part of the family and when she had children, they became “Aunt Susan” and “Uncle Moses”. This is where his name came from. He was known as “Carver’s George” or George Carver.
While George was still a baby, thieves crossed the border from Arkansas. After torturing Moses to try to see if he had money, they took George and his mother. Moses hired someone to find them, but only George was located. When the thieves realized that he was sick with whooping cough, they didn’t want hi anymore and left him at the side of the road.
George never fully recovered from his illness and wasn’t able to work on the farm or even speak in a normal voice, but he was smart. At a time in history when a black person was afraid to admit they could even read, he became the area’s specialist on plant life and farming by observing the plants and remembering what worked or didn’t. He was a fantastic cook and would sit with his “Aunt” Susan knitting or crocheting in the evenings.
George and his brother stayed with Moses and Susan even after the Civil War and the end of slavery to homeschool. After learning what he could, he left home to attend public school. His application to a college in Kansas was accepted, but when he arrived and they saw he was black, the administration wouldn’t allow him to attend.
He located a shack off campus and homesteaded on the land. To pay the bills, he washed laundry by hand. He had always been interested in the field of science, so while he was there, he conducted experiments and began collecting biological specimens.
He studied painting and music at the Simpson College in Iowa. Because most of his paintings were of a biological nature, his teacher mentioned the botany program at the Iowa State Agricultural College. He enrolled and was the first black student.
After receiving his master’s degree, George accepted a position as a professor and researcher under the supervision of Booker T Washington at the Tuskegee University. He didn’t have the supplies that he needed to set up a lab or the monetary resources to purchase supplies, so he took his students to the nearby trash dump to collect bottles and other garbage to be recycled and used for experiments.
Carver said 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“. He was very environmentally conscious and believed in taking care of each other as well as the planet we live in. One of the things that he taught his students was how to use paper, leaves and manure to make compost fertilizer for their fields and gardens. He would go into the woods each morning, which helped him feel nearer to God, and pray for guidance.
His research and teaching led to crop rotation to rejuvenate soil that had previously been used to grow “king cotton” and provide farmers with an alternate cash crop. The farmers were previous slaves and they worked for long hours in their own fields, but the cotton had begun to produce less and less; somewhat because of the boll weevil in 1892.
From sweet potatoes, he made products such as chocolate, synthetic ginger, flour, starch, sugar, coffee, lemon drops and vinegar. He created uses such as paints, medicine, alcohol, rubber compound, synthetic cotton and silk, paper, and ink.
From peanuts he made chili sauce, chocolate coated peanuts, coffee, mayonnaise, Worcestershire sauce, buttermilk, candy and pickles. The uses for peanuts were laundry soap, medicines, cosmetics, shampoo, dyes, paper, plastics, grease and oil, linoleum, insecticides, glue and nitroglycerine.
He came up with an idea for a mobile classroom and he took this on the road to teach farmers. It was called the “Jessup Wagon”. He taught the farmers to have pride in themselves and their accomplishments, including how to make a white wash out of local resources such as clays to beautify their homes. He gave out informational brochures and shared recipes. He taught the men and their families livestock care and food preservation. He also taught them the value of good nutrition including the importance of fruits and vegetables in a diet, including tomatoes, which at that time, many believed were poisonous. He had them submit their water samples for testing to make sure it was safe for consumption.
Some of the courses that he taught out of the wagon were: White and Color Washing with Native Clays, Three Delicious Meals every Day for the Farmer, Nature’s Garden for Victory and Peace. He believed it was important for farmers to raise their own food instead of buying it from the stores of plantation owners. He wanted them to become independent. He told them to save at least five cents every working day and buy their own land instead of sharecropping. If they did this, then at the end of the year, they would be able to buy three acres of land.
One of his favorite sayings was, “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.”
In 1921, Carver gave a speech in front of Congress to ask for tariffs on imported peanuts and peanut products. The tariff went into effect a year later.
He was a humble man, yet famous during his time. People such as Thomas Edison and Henry Ford sought him out for guidance. He was also an adviser to President Teddy Roosevelt on matters concerning agriculture. In 1916 he became a member of the British Royal Society of Arts, which was rare for any American, much less a black one. He was a friend and adviser to Mahatma Gandhi on agriculture and nutrition.
He turned down a job working with Thomas Edison for $100,000 a year for the professorship at Tuskegee which only paid $125 per month. Before he died, he was asked why he kept refusing pay increases and replied that, “What would I do with more money? I already have all of the earth.” He gave away his salaries anyway most of the time. He only owned one suit and wore a tie that he’d made out of corn shucks.
He never married nor had children, deciding that it was more important to serve others. People from all over the world came to visit and listen to him speak.
He wrote a syndicated newspaper column and toured the nation speaking on conservation, nutrition and agricultural innovations. Between 1923 and 1933, many years before integration and civil rights was placed in the forefront by Martin Luther King, Jr, he toured colleges in southern states to push for interracial cooperation.
He lived very frugally and saved money which was used to build a museum, which now displays samples of his work. Unfortunately, four years after his death a fire burned all but one of his paintings.
He died on January 5, 1943 at the age of 78 after falling down stairs in his home. He was buried next to Booker T Washington on the grounds of Tuskegee. His epitaph reads, “He could have added fortune to fame, but caring for neither, he found happiness and honor in being helpful to the world.”
Harry S Truman, while a senator, proposed a bill in favor of building a monument to Carver. The bill passed unanimously in both houses. Franklin D Roosevelt paid $30,000 to have the monument built near his first home as a slave in Diamond, Missouri at the old plantation. This was the first national monument to a black person.
He appeared on postage stamps at various times between 1948 and 1998 and a commemorative dollar that was minted from 1951 to 1954. Schools are named after him and two US military vessels. There is a botanical garden in St. Louis, Missouri that was named after him and has a statue of his likeness.
While men such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr are renowned worldwide, George W Carver has been forgotten by most. His legacy was in showing that education was necessary, that one must have pride in oneself and one’s surroundings to rise above oppression, that service to others was more important than fame or money and that even while faced with obstacles such as a squeaky voice or being the wrong color, one dedicated individual could change history.
Abrams, Dennis. George Washington Carver: Scientist and Educator. New York: Chelsea House, 2008. 108. Print.
Bowdish, Lynea. George Washington Carver. New York: Children’s, 2004. Print.
Moore, Eva. The Story of George Washington Carver. New York: Scholastic, 1971. Print.
Washington, Booker T. Up from Slavery. [New York]: Tribeca, 2012.