The Evolved Man of the Week: George Washington Carver

Welcome to the “Black History Month” edition of the Evolving Man Project’s Evolved Man of the Week profiles. Each week in February, we will highlight a historical black male figure who embodied what it meant to be an evolved man, famous and non-famous alike. The world needs to know their stories and deeds. This week’s honor goes to the American scientist, professor, and inventor George Washington Carver. 

Born on a farm near Diamond, Missouri, the exact date of Carver’s birth is unknown, but it’s thought he was born in January or June of 1864. Nine years prior, Moses Carver, a white farm owner, purchased George Carver’s mother, Mary, when she was 13. The elder Carver reportedly was against slavery but needed help with his 240-acre farm.

When Carver was an infant, he, his mother, and his sister were kidnapped from the Carver farm by one of the bands of slave raiders that roamed Missouri during the Civil War era. They were resold in Kentucky. Moses Carver hired a neighbor to retrieve them, but the neighbor only succeeded in finding George, whom he purchased by trading one of Moses’ finest horses. Carver grew up knowing little about his mother or father, who had died in an accident before he was born.

Moses Carver and his wife Susan raised the young George and his brother James as their own and taught the boys how to read and write. James gave up his studies and focused on working in the fields with Moses. George, however, was a frail and sickly child who could not help with such work; instead, Susan taught him how to cook, mend, embroider, do laundry, and garden, as well as how to concoct simple herbal medicines.

At a young age, Carver took a keen interest in plants and experimented with natural pesticides, fungicides, and soil conditioners. He became known as “the plant doctor” to local farmers due to his ability to discern how to improve the health of their gardens, fields, and orchards.

The conclusion of the Civil War in 1865 brought the end of slavery in Missouri. After that time, Moses and his wife, Susan, decided to keep Carver and his brother James at their home, raising and educating the two boys. Susan Carver taught Carver to read and write since no local school would accept Black students at the time.

The search for knowledge would remain a driving force for the rest of Carver’s life. As a young man, he left the Carver home to travel to a school for Black children 10 miles away. At this point, the boy, who had always identified himself as “Carver’s George,” was first known as “George Carver.” Carver attended a series of schools before receiving his diploma at Minneapolis High School in Minneapolis, Kansas.

Accepted to Highland College in Highland, Kansas, Carver was denied admittance once college administrators learned of his race. Instead of attending classes, he homesteaded a claim, where he conducted biological experiments and compiled a geological collection. While interested in science, Carver was also interested in the arts. In 1890, he began studying art and music at Simpson College in Iowa, developing his painting and drawing skills through sketches of botanical samples. His evident aptitude for drawing the natural world prompted a teacher to suggest that Carver enrolls in the botany program at the Iowa State Agricultural College.

Carver moved to Ames and began his botanical studies the following year as the first Black student at Iowa State. Carver excelled in his studies. Upon completing his Bachelor of Science degree, Carver’s professors, Joseph Budd and Louis Pammel, persuaded him to stay on for a master’s degree.

His graduate studies included intensive work in plant pathology at the Iowa Experiment Station. In these years, Carver established his reputation as a brilliant botanist and began the position he would pursue for the remainder of his career.

In 1896, Booker T. Washington, the first principal, and president of the Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University), invited Carver to head its Agriculture Department. Carver taught there for 47 years, developing the department into an intense research center and working with two additional college presidents during his tenure. He taught crop rotation methods, introduced several alternative cash crops for farmers that would also improve the soil of areas heavily cultivated in cotton, initiated research into crop products (chemurgy), and taught generations of black students farming techniques for self-sufficiency.

Carver designed a mobile classroom to take education out to farmers. He called it a “Jesup wagon” after the New York financier and philanthropist Morris Ketchum Jesup, who provided funding to support the program.

To recruit Carver to Tuskegee, Washington gave him an above-average salary and two rooms for personal use, although some other faculty resented both concessions. Because he had earned a master’s in a scientific field from a “white” institution, some faculty perceived him as arrogant. Unmarried faculty members normally had to share rooms, with two to a room, in the spartan early days of the institute.

Carver’s work at the Tuskegee Institute’s agricultural department included groundbreaking research on plant biology, which focused on developing new uses for crops, including peanuts, sweet potatoes, soybeans, and pecans. Carver’s inventions include hundreds of products, including more than 300 from peanuts (milk, plastics, paints, dyes, cosmetics, medicinal oils, soap, ink, wood stains), 118 from sweet potatoes (molasses, postage stamp glue, flour, vinegar, and synthetic rubber) and even a type of gasoline.

At the time, cotton production was declining in the South, and overproduction of a single crop had left many fields exhausted and barren. Carver suggested planting peanuts and soybeans, which could restore nitrogen to the soil, along with sweet potatoes. While these crops grew well in southern climates, there was little demand. Carver’s inventions and research solved this problem and helped struggling sharecroppers in the South, many of them formerly enslaved, now faced with necessary cultivation.

But Carver’s most considerable success came from peanuts.

In all, he developed more than 300 food, industrial and commercial products from peanuts, including milk, Worcestershire sauce, punches, cooking oils, salad oil, paper, cosmetics, soaps, and wood stains. He also experimented with peanut-based medicines, such as antiseptics, laxatives, and goiter medications. It should be noted, however, that many of these suggestions or discoveries remained curiosities and did not find widespread applications.

In 1921, Carver appeared before the Ways and Means Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives on behalf of the peanut industry, seeking tariff protection. Though his testimony did not begin well, he described the wide range of products that could be made from peanuts, which earned him a standing ovation and convinced the committee to approve a highly protected tariff for the common legume. He then became known as “The Peanut Man.”

Carver took a holistic approach to knowledge, which embraced faith and inquiry in a unified quest for truth. Carver also believed that commitment to a Larger Reality is necessary if science and technology are to serve human needs rather than the egos of the powerful. His belief in service was a direct outgrowth and expression of his wedding of inquiry and commitment.

In the last two decades, Carver lived as a minor celebrity, but his focus was always on helping people. He traveled to the South to promote racial harmony, and he traveled to India to discuss nutrition in developing nations with Mahatma Gandhi.

Until his death, he also released bulletins for the public (44 bulletins between 1898 and 1943). Some of the bulletins reported on research findings, but others were more practical and included cultivation information for farmers, science for teachers, and recipes for housewives. Carver died after falling down the stairs at his home on January 5, 1943, at the age of 78. He was buried next to Booker T. Washington on the Tuskegee grounds.

Here is George Washington Carver in his own words about his Christian faith: 

I was just a mere boy when converted, hardly ten years old. There isn’t much of a story to it. God just came into my heart one afternoon while I was alone in the ‘loft’ of our big barn while I was shelling corn to carry to the mill to be ground into meal.

A dear little white boy, one of our neighbors, about my age came by one Saturday morning, and in talking and playing he told me he was going to Sunday school tomorrow morning. I was eager to know what a Sunday school was. He said they sang hymns and prayed. I asked him what prayer was and what they said. I do not remember what he said; only remember that as soon as he left I climbed up into the ‘loft,’ knelt down by the barrel of corn and prayed as best I could. I do not remember what I said. I only recall that I felt so good that I prayed several times before I quit.

My brother and myself were the only colored children in that neighborhood and of course, we could not go to church or Sunday school, or school of any kind.

That was my simple conversion, and I have tried to keep the faith.

George Washing Carver was a man of many talents and abilities. He helped countless people with his inventors and agricultural innovations. Although he was known as the Peanut Man, he ironically was not the person who invented peanut butter. He led an extraordinary life coming out of slavery. Even today, George Washington Carver inspires many to inquire, learn, and create. Today we honor George Washington Carver as our Evolved Man of the Week. 

Botanist George Washington Carver donated $33,000 in cash to the Tuskegee Institute to establish a fund to carry on the agricultural and chemical work he began.

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