George Washington Carver

(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Through his work with plant diseases, soil analysis, and crop management, Carver enabled many Southern farmers to have greater crop yield and profits. In his role as educator and friend, he motivated hundreds of blacks to improve their lives and inspired white friends to work toward racial equality.

Early Life

George Washington Carver was born a slave near Diamond Grove, Missouri, possibly on July 12, 1861. According to an unconfirmed but plausible story, George and his mother, Mary, were kidnaped by slave raiders shortly after his birth. Mary’s owner, Moses Carver, hired a neighbor to search for them. Unable to find Mary, the man returned with George and received a racehorse as payment. George was reared by Moses Carver and his wife, Susan. Slaves were given only first names, so George took the Carver name as his own. Later he added the initial W to distinguish himself from another George Carver. The W came to stand for Washington.

A sickly child, George became Susan’s helper in the house. He proved adept at household tasks, and he displayed keen interest and ability in growing plants. Intelligent and curious, Carver was frustrated that he could not attend the white school in Diamond Grove. About 1877, Carver moved to neighboring Neosho so that he could go to school there. He lived with a black couple and did household chores for his room and board, a situation that was repeated often in his quest for education.

After attending schools throughout Kansas, Carver applied to a small Presbyterian college in Highland, Kansas, in 1884. He was accepted by mail, but when the school learned that he was black, he was denied admission. After homesteading in Beeler, Kansas, Carver moved to Winterset, Iowa. In 1890, he entered Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa. The only black on campus, he soon won the respect and affection of the other students. He supported himself by doing laundry, but students anonymously gave him concert tickets and extra money.

Carver enrolled in Simpson to study art, but he doubted that he could make a living as a black artist. When his art teacher learned of his skill with plants, she suggested that he attend Iowa State, the agricultural college at Ames, Iowa. Believing that he could help his people as a trained agriculturist, he enrolled at Iowa State in 1891. While at Ames, Carver met three future United States secretaries of agriculture: James Wilson, Henry C. Wallace, and Henry A. Wallace. The latter influenced his training in agriculture and helped him later in his work at Tuskegee.

In 1894, Carver received his bachelor of science degree and began graduate work. He was appointed to the faculty as an assistant in botany and was given charge of the greenhouse. Doing graduate work with L. H. Pammel, a noted authority on mycology, Carver developed his expertise in the study of fungi and plant diseases. Before Carver finished his graduate work, Booker T. Washington asked him to head a new agricultural school at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Carver accepted the position, believing that it was the mission which God had prepared him to undertake.

Life’s Work

In the fall of 1896, Carver completed requirements for his master’s of agriculture degree and arrived at Tuskegee to head the agricultural department and direct a new experiment station. In addition to teaching, conducting research, and working with the Tuskegee extension program, Carver was assigned administrative and caretaking duties.

Small in build and high-pitched in voice, Carver already was unorthodox in appearance and habits. He wore the same clothes for years, simply adding more patches, but he always had a fresh flower in his lapel. Somewhat of a loner, he made few close friends on campus, although he welcomed visitors who were interested in his work. Most of his close friends were white, and he sustained many friendships through correspondence.

Because Carver wanted to assist the poorest farmers, he conducted soil-building experiments and research on crop diversification. He also studied plant diseases and how to prevent or control them. For the homemaker, he investigated methods of food dehydration and preservation. He also developed color washes from the clay soil which the farmers could use to beautify their homes. In laymen’s language, his findings were printed in bulletins and distributed freely.

Before Carver arrived at Tuskegee, Washington was holding yearly Farmers’ Conferences which were attended by farmers and interested whites. The two-day conference gave information and motivated farmers to work for economic independence. Carver expanded conference activities and gave tours of the station grounds, during which he explained the institute’s experiments....

(The entire section is 1979 words.)