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who was george washington carver?
George Washington Carver, (born 1861, near Diamond Grove, Missouri, U.S.—died January 5, 1943, Tuskegee, Alabama), American agricultural chemist, agronomist, and experimenter whose development of new products derived from peanuts (groundnuts), sweet potatoes, and soybeans helped revolutionize the agricultural economy of the South. For most of his career he taught and conducted research at the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute (now Tuskegee University) in Tuskegee, Alabama.
Carver was born into slavery, the son of an enslaved woman named Mary, owned by Moses Carver. During the American Civil War, the Carver farm was raided, and infant George and his mother were kidnapped and taken to Arkansas to be sold.
Moses Carver was eventually able to track down young George but was unable to find Mary. Frail and sick, the motherless child was returned to his master’s plantation and nursed back to health. With the complete abolition of slavery in the United States in 1865,George Carver was no longer an enslaved child. He remained on the Carver plantation until he was about 10 or 12 years old, when he left to acquire an education. carver spent some time wandering about, working with his hands and developing his keen interest in plants and animals. He learned to draw, and later in life he devoted considerable time to painting flowers, plants, and landscapes.
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 years old. 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 sold 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 his 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 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 “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.
Moses and his wife, Susan, decided to keep Carver and his brother James at their home after that time, 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.
It was at this point that the boy, who had always identified himself as “Carver’s George” first came to be 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 obvious aptitude for drawing the natural world prompted a teacher to suggest that Carver enroll 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 completion of 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 work that he would pursue the remainder of his career.
In April 1896, Carver received a letter from Booker T. Washington of Tuskegee Institute, one of the first African American colleges in the United States. “I cannot offer you money, position or fame,” read this letter. “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 work, the task of bringing people from degradation, poverty and waste to full manhood. Your department exists only on paper and your laboratory will have to be in your head.
” Washington’s offer was $125.00 per month (a substantial cut from Carver’s Iowa State salary) and the luxury of two rooms for living quarters (most Tuskegee faculty members had just one). It was an offer that George Carver accepted immediately and the place where he worked for the remainder of his life.
Carver was determined to use his knowledge to help poor farmers of the rural South. He began by introducing the idea of crop rotation. In the Tuskegee experimental fields, Carver settled on peanuts because it was a simple crop to grow and had excellent nitrogen fixating properties to improve soil depleted by growing cotton. He took his lessons to former slaves turned sharecroppers by inventing the Jessup Wagon, a horse-drawn classroom and laboratory for demonstrating soil chemistry. Farmers were ecstatic with the large cotton crops resulting from the cotton/peanut rotation, but were less enthusiastic about the huge surplus of peanuts that built up and began to rot in local storehouses.
In 1896, George Washington Carver left Iowa to take a job with Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. There he conducted agricultural research and taught students until his death. George’s research and instruction helped poor southern farmers, both white and black, change their farming practices and improve their diets. He stressed the importance of planting peanuts to upgrade the quality of the soil, which had been depleted from years of planting cotton. George found many practical uses for peanuts, sweet potatoes, and other agricultural products. He also created and tested many recipes in his laboratory. George’s ideas and discoveries helped farmers improve their lives. His work also helped revitalize the depressed southern economy.
As George worked tirelessly in his laboratory from 1900 to 1920, his fame grew. He became widely known for his agricultural experiments. He also became known as a promoter of racial equality. People who wanted to improve race relations in America asked for George’s help. George was a deeply religious man and agreed to share his belief in racial equality. During the 1920s and 1930s, he traveled throughout the South delivering his message of racial harmony.
George drew more public attention during the mid-1930s when the polio virus struck in America. George offered a treatment of peanut-oil massages that he believed helped many people, especially children, gain relief from the painful and paralyzing effects of polio. As word of George’s treatment spread, people flocked to the Tuskegee campus for George’s “cure.”
Carver as Symbol
George Washington Carver: inventor, scientist, agriculturalist, teacher, mentor, and above all symbol. Carver was all of the above at various times; as such, he often eludes easy categorization. Certainly, he was a scientist, but not one who always used the most rigorous methods. He was very successful as a scientist, inventor, and agriculturalist, but he did not measure success by the usual methods. He said: “It is not the style of clothes one wears,
neither the kind of automobiles one drives, nor the amount of money one has in the bank that counts. These mean nothing. It is simple service that measures success.”25 Measured by this standard, Carver was indeed a success.
Carver’s ability to develop new products, especially from the peanut,
cemented his fame, and that fame spread after his House testimony and his quasi-adoption as the peanut industry’s spokesman. In the 1920s a number of newspapers in the South touted his accomplishments and saw him as an
example of the New South,
a movement that preached a degree of interracial harmony based on economic opportunity for blacks. Carver’s multifaceted role as an example of what blacks could achieve by dint of hard work as well as the use of his success by others to promote racial harmony must be remembered in any assessment of him.
Carver as Symbol
Carver’s stature as a symbol had become fixed by his later years. Various groups adopted him as an emblem for whatever cause they represented. It is no wonder that the country was quick to make his birthplace in Diamond Grove, Missouri,
a national monument, the first such honor bestowed on an African American.