George Washington Carver

“The primary idea in all of my work was to help the farmer and fill the poor man’s empty dinner pail.  My idea is to help the ‘man farthest down’, this is why I have made every process just as simply as I could to put it within his reach.”   George Washington Carver was born in about 1864, though the exact date was unknown because of lax record keeping at the time.  His birth took place at a pivotal time in U.S. history, toward the end of the Civil War.  The economy of the region was based upon the cultivation of cotton and tobacco.  Many of the farms had been decimated by the war.  But the more profound impact came from the fact that, without slave labor, the economy of the agricultural south was brought to its knees.  The need for ideas and innovations to revolutionize the industry and economy was dire.   Carver was born the son of a slave on the farm of Moses and Susan Carver, near Diamond Grove, Missouri.  Little is known for sure about his early life, as much is a matter of oral legend.  For instance, it is not known for certain who his father was, but it is believed that he was a slave from a neighboring farm who died either shortly before (or after) Carver’s birth in a logging accident.  It is known that Moses Carver purchased George’s mother, Mary, on October 9, 1855, for the sum of $700.00 from William P. McGinnis.  When George was an infant, confederate night raiders kidnapped him and his mother and sold them in Arkansas.  Some accounts say that they were held for ransom, while others claim that Moses Carver hired John Bently to find them.  Depending upon which version of the story you read, a race horse worth $300.00 was used as ransom, or John Bently was given a filly that eventually produced racehorces as a reward for his efforts.  In any case, George’s mother was not brought back.  Again, depending upon which version of the story is to be believed, his mother was either killed, or she went north with Union soldiers.  It is obvious that the return of George was quite important to Moses and Susan Carver.  It is not clear whether their concern was for their financial investment, or if the simply cared for the welfare of these people whom they happened to own.  It is known, though, that the Carvers did raise George as their own child, which leads one to believe that the latter was their motivation.   When George was returned he was near death with whooping cough, which left him permanently weakened.  As a result, he was unable to work as a farm hand.  Thus, he was allowed to pursue those interests that he found compelling.  He was drawn to nature, and spent his days exploring plants, rocks, trees, insects, and seeds.  He became so talented at making plants flourish that he came to be known as the Plant Doctor, from whom even Moses Carver sought advice on the health and well being of cultivated plants.    At the age of about ten or 11, George learned that there was a school for African American children in the town of Neosho, which was about 8 miles from his home town.  He resolved to move there in order to attend classes at the Lincoln School for Colored Children, and his adopted parents did not stop him.  There he met Mariah Watkins and her husband Andrew, a Black couple, who took him in under the condition that he would work for his keep.  He performed various household chores that he had learned during his stay with the Carvers in exchange for food and board.  It was Mariah Watkins who taught him that he was no longer to call himself “Carver’s George,” which implied that he was still a slave.  Instead, he was to refer to himself as George Carver.  Young George excelled in his studies and pursued them relentlessly.  He constantly had a textbook in front of him, even when he did household chores.  It would prove to be a passion that would benefit a great many people.  By the end of 1876, he had learned all he could learn in Neosho, and it was time to move on.    George moved about 75 miles to attend school in Fort Scott, Kansas.  There he worked as a cook to save money to get him through a term at school.  During the term, he rented a lean-to for one dollar a week, and allowed himself another dollar per week for food.  At the end of the term, when he was completely out of money, he went to work for the local hotel ironing linens, and he took in laundry from business travelers.  By the end of the summer, he had saved enough money to return to school.  All looked promising, until one night, in his second year in Fort Scott, he witnessed a Black man being dragged from jail and lynched.  He packed up and left that night.   In 1885, George applied for admission to Highland College in Kansas, and was accepted on the merits of his accomplishments.  When he arrived, however, he was turned away because of the color of his skin.  The following year, he applied for admission to Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa, and was accepted.  He studied art and music at Simpson, and did well in both fields.  However, he was an altruistic soul, and he wanted to put his energies toward something that would help others.  So he transferred to Iowa State Agricultural and Mechanical College (now Iowa State University), where he obtained a B.S. in 1894, and a M.S. in 1896 in bacterial botany and agriculture.  During the time when he was working toward his Masters, he was on the faculty at Iowa State.  His accomplishments were well known and his expertise widely acknowledged.  Even at this stage in his life, the stature that he had earned as a respected botanist and educator would have been extraordinary.  But this would be just the tip of the iceberg.   In April of 1896, George received a letter from Booker T. Washington, asking him to come to the Tuskegee Institute to head the Agricultural Department.  A quote from the letter reads, “I cannot offer you money, position, or fame.  The first two you have.  The last, from the position you now occupy, you will no doubt achieve.  These things I now ask you to give up.  I offer you in their place work, hard, hard work, the task of bringing a people from degradation, poverty and waste to full manhood.”  He believed that his role at Tuskegee was ordained by God, and went willingly and without reservation.  He would spend the rest of his life at Tuskegee, and would transform the face of agriculture in the South.   ... a HumanitarianAt that time, cotton was the biggest agricultural crop in the region, and 85 percent of the African Americans in the Gulf States were farmers.  Cotton heavily depleted the nutrients in the soil, though, so it could not be grown in the same place repeatedly.  From his classroom at Tuskegee, Carver taught soil conservation through crop rotation.  He taught farmers to plant legumes, such as peanuts, which took nitrogen from the air and enriched the soil.  He didn’t just teach these lessons in the classroom, though.  He went to rural meetings and he talked to individual farmers.  He was a one-man grass-roots movement.  And his teachings caught on.  Soon there was an abundance of peanuts, and they were not a very popular item.  This left farmers with another economic problem:  What to do with so many peanuts, and a very small market for them.  So Carver spent countless hours in his laboratory, working to find a variety of uses for peanuts.  He ended up finding over 300 uses for peanuts, including beverages, cosmetics, dyes, paints, stains, stock foods, foods for human consumption, medicines, and general items such as axle grease, paper, wall boards, plastics, and rubber. The crop eventually covered five million acres, and was worth over $200 million annually.   In addition to helping farmers to improve soil quality through the planting of peanuts, George Washington Carver also taught farmers about soil fertilization, both in classes at Tuskegee, and, for those who couldn’t come to him, with his “school on wheels” that went around the countryside.  He developed hybrid cotton and vegetable plants that were of better quality and larger size than those previously available.  His methods of crop rotation soon became the standard adopted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and his teachings were internationally recognized and adopted.  He also devised hundreds of uses for soybeans, pecans, and sweet potatoes.  Most notable is the fact that Carver refused to profit from his knowledge or inventions.  He only patented three of his processes for making cosmetics, paints, and stains from soybeans.  Otherwise, he believed that any discoveries he made were God-given, and he had a moral imperative to share them for the betterment of mankind.  He continually refused raises to his salary at Tuskegee, and he cared nothing for new or elegant clothing.  As further testament to his convictions, he gave up his life savings (an unfathomable sum of $60,000) so that the Carver Research Foundation at Tuskegee could be established, and agricultural research could continue beyond his lifetime.    It is without doubt that the personal knowledge of the benefit he gave to his fellow man would have been sufficient reward for the lifetime of work to which George Washington Carver dedicated himself.  However, he was also given numerous awards and accolades.  Among them were an honorary doctorate from Simpson College, an honorary membership in the Royal Society of Arts in London, the Springarn Medal given by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the Roosevelt medal for his work to rescue southern agriculture.  In 1943, Carver received the great honor of having a national monument dedicated to his accomplishments by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  There is also a park preserve near the area where Carver was raised, and this was the first designated national monument to an African American in the United States. He was pictured on commemorative postage stamps in 1948 and 1998, and was pictured on a commemorative half dollar from 1951-1954.   1998 stamp George Washington Carver continued his pursuit of music and art into his later years.  One year, he even toured as a pianist to raise money for the Institute.  Painting was very close to his heart, too, and his paintings centered around none other than botany.  Of note with respect to his artwork is that he created all of the paints from Alabama soil, and the colors were very unique and varied.  One of the hues of blue was thought to be a rediscovery of a color used in ancient Egypt that modern pigment makers had been trying to re-create for some time.    Funk Jive George Washington Carver died on January 5, 1943 at the age of about 79 as a result of complications from a fall he took down a flight of stairs.  He was buried at Tuskegee next to his friend, Booker T. Washington.  There are not really words that can sum up the life of such a relevant and influential, yet morally driven and modest man.  Perhaps it is best to consider his epitaph:  “He could have added fortune to fame, but caring for neither, he found happiness and honor in being helpful to the world.”