George Washington Carver: A Man for All Seasons

by, Jo Carol Hebert

Born into slavery during the horrific times of the American Civil War, he became Teacher, Scientist, Inventor, Botanist, Artist, Sculptor, Musician, Humanitarian, and Conservationist. He was honored by Presidents and Kings and beloved by the common man. Yet, in 1943, when he died at the age of 79, on his gravestone were the words:  “He could have added fortune to fame; but, caring for neither, he found happiness and honor in being helpful to the world.”

Early Formative Years

Born 1864, Diamond Grove, Missouri

George Washington Carver’s parents were the slaves of German immigrants, Moses and Susan Carter, who owned a 240-acre farm. When he was just an infant, slave raiders kidnapped him and his mother, Mary. The Carver’s found George, but the child lost his mother.

The Carver’s had no children. They raised ‘Carver’s George’, as he was called then, and his brother, James. They taught them to read and write. James liked to work in the fields with Moses, but George was more frail. He helped Mrs. Carter in the household chores and she taught him how to make medicines from plants in her garden. These childhood days were spent roaming the nearby woods, studying plants and collecting specimens. His love of plants would become his passion, his calling, and his legacy.

Thirst for Knowledge

In those days after the Civil War, enslaved workers became legally free. But life was not easier for them. Black children were not allowed to attend the nearby elementary schools. So, George left the Carver farm to attend a school in Neosho, Missouri.

He moved in and worked with a Black couple named Mariah and Andrew Watkins. There, he learned more about medicinal plants from Mariah who used herbs she made for mothers and their babies.

On the Road Again

Now young George had the ingredient of all successful people – the good sense to grasp opportunities and make the most of the moment. When he found that he had learned all he could from the local school, he was on the move again.

He moved West with a group of other African-Americans as a part of a mass migration called the “Exodusters”. He finally graduated Minneapolis High School in Minneapolis, Kansas. It was in these years that he took the Carter last name and added a W. middle to become George Washington Carver. Higher education became impossible, so he began homesteading, (working his own land) studying and collecting soil samples, plants, and rocks.

Call of the Heart

His love for learning eventually led him to the state of Iowa, where he again found people that recognized his genius. John and Helen Millholland encouraged him to enroll in Simpson College, where he was accepted. At first, he studied music and art and even showed his paintings at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. 

His Art teacher, Etta Budd, was wise, and knew that life would be difficult for a young Black artist. She encouraged him to follow his lifelong love of plants. Now, George Washington Carver, he switched studies to Botany (the study of plants) and transferred to Iowa State Agricultural College. He was the first Black student at the school. He received his bachelor’s degree in 1894 in Agricultural Science when he was about thirty years old, and his Masters degree two years later.

George Washington Carver Meets Booker T.  Washington

Rarely have two such brilliant minds come together. Booker T. was the founder of the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute (now Tuskegee University) which provided vocational skills to advance the welfare of Black people. Carver connected with that dream and joined the faculty to lead its new agricultural department. He stayed for forty years and completed his legacy to the world.

Tuskegee Years

This remarkable school produced many ‘first’ Black scientists, athletes, politicians, musicians, media personalities, and the famous Tuskegee Airmen, first Black military pilots during World War II. 

George Washington Carver stacked up many ‘firsts’ in his career at Tuskegee University. After the Civil War and the crumbling of the Southern plantation culture of ‘cotton is king’, the soil was left depleted and robbed of all nutrients. Carver began applying his experience of plants and soil to the idea of ‘crop rotation’. This included planting alternative crops to cotton – potatoes, sweet potatoes, soybeans, and peanuts. 

Peanuts were especially strong against the dreaded ‘boll weevil’ pest that destroys whole crops of cotton. He taught poor farmers that they could feed their hogs acorns instead of buying expensive feed. He taught them to use natural swamp ‘muck’ instead of fertilizers to enrich the soil.

The Jessup Wagon

To maximize his educational benefits, Carver invented the Jessup Wagon. This was a kind of mobile (horse-drawn) classroom and laboratory he took into the fields to the farmers to teach them about soil chemistry and methods of planting and harvest. It was so successful that the alternative crops became abundant. As usual, with Carver, he then invented applications for the crops, especially the lowly peanut.

The Peanut Man

Carver devised 300 food, industrial, and commercial uses for the peanut, although he did not invent peanut butter (that was done by the Aztecs long ago). A sampling of these innovations include: peanut milk, Worcester sauce, punches, cooking and salad oils, paper, cosmetics, soaps and wood stains. He also experimented with peanut-based medicines such as antiseptics and laxatives.

Did You Know?

  • He collaborated with Henry Ford on an alternative soybean-based rubber.
  • Henry Ford made a lightweight car body composed in part from soybeans.
  • Thomas Edison was a big fan of Carver and tried to get him to work at his lab.
  • Carver traveled to India to meet and befriend Mahatma Gandhi and advise him       on the nutritional value of adding soy to Gandhi’s diet and the people of India.
  • He dined in the White House and advised Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge on agricultural issues.
  • President Roosevelt commissioned a National Monument – before only designated for Presidents – for George Washington Carver, now in  Diamond, Missouri.
  • He is in the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Virginia.

The End Which is Not an End

When his life had run its full course, George Washington Carver died, falling down a flight of stairs in his home. Buried on the grounds of his beloved Tuskegee Institute, his legacy (life’s work) continues in the inventions he created for the good of mankind and in the character of his being. He ‘walked the walk’ and ‘talked the talk’ of his motto for living:

  • Be clean, inside and out
  • Neither look up to the rich or down to the poor.
  • Win without bragging.
  • Always be considerate to women, children, and older people.
  • Be too brave to lie.
  • Be too generous to cheat.
  • Take your share of the world and let others have theirs.

Thank you, George Washington Carver. 

True False Quiz: George Washington Carver

*See more Black History in the post on Matthew Henson Reaches the North Pole.

Categories: Biographies

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