GREENWICH, N.Y. — Agriculturalist. Researcher. Inventor. Peanut Man. Artist. Former slave. Dreamer. These are some of the many titles that can be attributed to George Washington Carver. Carver was an African-American agriculturalist remembered most for his experimentation with peanuts while working at the Tuskegee Institute. His work and life left a lasting impact not just on American agriculture, but on many people he met.
George Washington Carver was born near Diamond, Missouri, the son of slaves. Carver’s birth date is not officially known but it is believed to be sometime in 1864 or 1865. George’s mother was a slave for a couple named Moses & Susan Carver and his father was a slave on a neighboring property who sadly died before his birth. As an infant George and his mother were kidnapped by slave raiders. George was rescued, but his mother was never retrieved leaving George an orphan.1
Without his parents and George now considered free with the conclusion of the Civil War, Moses and Susan raised George as their own and gave him their last name. He was often sickly and frail as a child which meant that he could not help with farm chores, but he spent most of his time helping with domestic chores. Young George was an avid reader always wanting to learn and he developed a deep interest in plants earning him the nickname the “Plant Doctor.”2
At age 11 George moved to Neosho, Missouri to attend a school for black children. While there he lived with a black couple named Andrew and Mariah Watkins who boarded him in exchange for him helping with household chores. The Watkinses, in particular Mariah, had an influence on Carver teaching him more about medicinal herbs and instilling in him a Christian faith which would guide him for the rest of his life.3
As a teenager and young man Carver moved around the Midwest in search of better education. In the late 1880s he landed in Winterset, Iowa where he met another influential couple: the Milhollands. The Milhollands encouraged him to pursue a higher education, but Carver was hesitant after he was rejected from a college in Kansas because of his race. The Milhollands were able to convince him and he began attending Simpson College studying mainly art and music. Carver greatly enjoyed Simpson College and was impacted by their acceptance of him later writing, “They made me believe I was a real human being.”4
Discovering he had a passion for and talent in botany, teachers encouraged him to pursue that subject feeling he would have greater opportunities in that field than as an artist. While Carver loved art and would continue painting for the rest of life, he agreed this would likely be better for him. So, he transferred to Iowa Agricultural College, now Iowa State University, where he earned degree in agricultural science in 1894 and a master’s degree in the subject in 1896. At Iowa State he developed a talent for identifying and treating plant diseases.5
As the only black man in the country with an advanced degree in agriculture science, Carver was flooded with offers to teach at schools across the country. He would eventually accept an offer from Booker T. Washington to teach at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Booker T. Washington was a leading African-American educator, author, and statesman at that time and was the most famous black man of his era. Living in the South during the era of Jim Crow laws and segregation which limited African Americans, he advocated for education and entrepreneurship as a means of black progress which led him to open the Tuskegee Institute in 1881. The school instructed students in trades and skills, education, and sought to make model citizens.6
In 1896 Washington was looking to establish an agricultural school at Tuskegee so he reached out to Carver about the position. Carver was hesitant at first but ultimately decided to accept the position out of a life-long desire to help black people. He wrote to Washington, “…it has always been the one great ideal of my life to be of the greatest good to the greatest number of ‘my people’ possible and to this end I have been preparing myself these many years; feeling as I do that this line of education is the key to unlock the golden door of freedom to our people.”7
Carver had some difficulty fitting into his environment at Tuskegee. Many locals balked at his attempts to teach “scientific agriculture” as they believed that farming was something they already knew how to do. Other faculty members resented him for his high salary and insistence on two dormitories (one for himself and one for his research plants) even though he was an unmarried man. Carver mainly wanted to conduct research, however Washington expected him to take on other functions like manage the school’s two farms, teach classes, serve on committees, and even some janitorial services. The two men sometimes clashed over these issues, as well as their temperamental differences. Washington was a pragmatist who wanted things done and done in a certain way. Carver on the other hand was a “dreamer” who liked to tinker, experiment, and abide by a less structured manner.8
Carver did eventually find his footing and set about accomplishing his goals using chemistry and science to improve the lives of poor farmers in the area both black and white. Carver conducted soil studies to find out which crops would grow best in southern soils. He uncovered that legumes like peanuts and tubers like sweet potatoes were well suited to the region. Cotton was the dominant crop in the region. While it was profitable the crop robbed the soil of nutrients. Carver encouraged farmers to practice crop rotation with crops like peanuts, peas, and sweet potatoes to restore the soils. Implementation of these practices increased productivity when growing cotton and other crops.9
To spread the word on these practices Carver developed various forms of outreach. The main way was through free bulletins which shared research updates, cultivation techniques, crop information, and recipes to use those crops. Carver wanted to reach every kind of farmer with the bulletins using a threefold approach that provided cultivation information for farmers, science for teachers, and recipes for housewives. Another form of outreach was the Jessup Wagon which was a traveling laboratory that traveled the region to demonstrate techniques and findings to everyday farmers. The Wagon was so successful in extending Tuskegee’s outreach that the USDA began using this avenue of outreach as well.10
More farmers began to grow peanuts and sweet potatoes, but this created another issue: what to do with all of them? At the time neither crop was widely eaten and there were limited uses for them. This problem led Carver to the lab where he experimented trying to find new uses for the crops. From sweet potatoes Carver was able to make food products like flour, starch, vinegar, false coconut, and even chocolate, as well as non-food products like paints, writing ink, and dyes.11
Carver is most remembered for his work with peanuts though. Throughout the course of his life he would discover around 300 uses for the plant. Food products included peanut oil, peanut butter, Worcestershire sauce, salad dressings, mock meats, and beverages. Non-food discoveries stretched into medicinal and cosmetic areas with products like massage oils, hand and face lotions, shaving cream, and more. His promotion of the peanut and discoveries earned him another nickname, the Peanut Man.12
Carver’s work earned him notoriety and his name would become even more well known in 1921 when he testified before the House of Representatives’ Ways and Means Committee on behalf of the peanut industry which was seeking tariff protection. After a poor start to his presentation Carver was able to effectively show the many uses of peanuts and its importance to U.S. agriculture. He was able to win the Congressmen over and peanuts received a protective tariff.13
Dedication to service remained a driving force in his life even as his fame grew. Carver took a practical and beneficial approach to science which stemmed from his faith. He always sought to have his work help those around him and not bring him notoriety even though it did. One of his favorite quotes is reported to have been, “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.”14
Carver worked at Tuskegee Institute from 1896 until his death in 1943. Even after he stopped teaching in 1915, Carver remained popular and influential amongst the students. He taught a Sunday evening Bible class for students and he was committed to the school’s desire to educate the entire person, both in and outside of the classroom. He was a mentor to many young men which was very meaningful to him. Carver never married or had any children of his own, but being a father figure to students was something he cherished.15
By the time of his death George Washington Carver had succeeded in his goal of improving the lives of poor, small farmers. The crop rotation research provided better yields for Southern farmers helping bring more prosperity. By 1940 peanuts were one of the six most grown crops in the nation and the second cash crop grown in the South behind cotton.16 Today, the peanut plays a larger part in the American diet today thanks in part to Carver’s research and his work in soil science helped spread practices that farmers still use today. He remains an inspiring and important figure in the history of American agriculture.
3 “George Washington Carver: Chemist, Teacher, Symbol,” American Chemical Society National Historic Chemical Landmarks, accessed February 23, 2023, http://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/education/whatischemistry/landmarks/carver.html.
5 “George Washington Carver,” Science History Institute, updated October 15, 2020, https://www.sciencehistory.org/historical-profile/george-washington-carver.
6 “George Washington Carver: Chemist, Teacher, Symbol,” American Chemical Society National Historic Chemical Landmarks, accessed February 23, 2023, http://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/education/whatischemistry/landmarks/carver.html.
11 “The Legacy of Dr. George Washington Carver,” Tuskegee University, accessed February 23, 2023, https://www.tuskegee.edu/support-tu/george-washington-carver.
13 “George Washington Carver: Chemist, Teacher, Symbol,” American Chemical Society National Historic Chemical Landmarks, accessed February 23, 2023, http://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/education/whatischemistry/landmarks/carver.html.
14 “The Legacy of Dr. George Washington Carver,” Tuskegee University, accessed February 23, 2023, https://www.tuskegee.edu/support-tu/george-washington-carver.
16 “George Washington Carver,” Science History Institute, updated October 15, 2020, https://www.sciencehistory.org/historical-profile/george-washington-carver.
Chandler Hansen grew up and lives in Easton, NY. He is a graduate of Gordon College where he earned a bachelor’s degree in History. He serves as a writer and editor for Morning Ag Clips.