Carver, George Washington (ca. 1865–1943)
Born in slavery just before the end of the Civil War, George Washington Carver became an agricultural scientist internationally renowned for his role in the diversification of southern agricultural practices, particularly in the peanut and sweet potato crops. He conducted experiments in crop rotation and the restoration of soil fertility, worked with hybrid cotton, and invented useful products from peanuts, sweet potatoes, and Alabama red clay. His successful testimony before the House Ways and Means Committee in 1921 on the importance of protecting the U.S. peanut industry earned him an identity as the peanut wizard and resulted in a tariff that protected the domestic peanut crop.
Carver's mother, Mary, was a slave on the farm of Moses and Susan Carver when Carver was born. Although his exact birth date is unknown, it is generally thought that he was born in the spring of 1865. His father was said to have been a slave on an adjacent farm, who was killed in an accident soon after Carver's birth. When Carver was still a young child, his mother disappeared, and Carver and his brother were brought up by Moses and Susan. Even as a child Carver developed a reputation as the neighborhood “plant doctor,” collecting plants and keeping a small plant nursery.
Leaving home at the age of 12, Carver began a long journey in search of education that would take him through three states, Missouri, Kansas, and Minnesota. In each place Carver found a black family willing to take him in and provide room and board in exchange for chores, while allowing him to attend school during the day. By 1891 Carver was enrolled in the Iowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanics in Ames, Iowa. Here he found success and recognition for his diverse skills. A painting he did during these years, Yucca and Cactus, was exhibited in Cedar Rapids and selected as an Iowa representative for the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. Among his fellow students Carver was known as the “doctor” for his way with plants. Awarded his bachelor's degree in 1894 and his master's degree in 1896 by the college now known as Iowa State University, Carver left Iowa to accept a teaching position at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, where he spent the next 47 years.
As a researcher at Tuskegee, Carver worked on many projects to improve the prospects for poor southern farmers. Page 125 | Top of ArticleHe experimented with crop rotation, worked with organic fertilizers, and developed more than 300 products that could be made from peanuts, a staple crop that became even more important when the cotton boll weevil invaded the South, ruining fields of cotton and forcing farmers to grow even more peanuts. He also was instrumental in establishing the first successful agricultural extension programs to teach good farming practices.
Carver received many awards during his life, including an invitation to serve on the advisory board of the National Agricultural Society; the Spingarn Medal, awarded by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1923; the Franklin Roosevelt Medal in 1937 for “Distinguished Research in Agricultural Chemistry”; and several honorary doctorates. After Carver's death on January 5, 1943, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed legislation designating Carver's Missouri birthplace a national monument.