ROOTS, STEMS, AND LEAVES

We honor Dr. George Washington Carver (1864 – January 5, 1943) during Black History Month. Carver revolutionized agriculture in the South, transforming its economy.

Background:

Dr. Carver was born near Diamond Grove, Mo., to enslaved parents. His exact birthdate is unknown but is estimated to be around 1864. (Many people born into slavery never knew their exact birthdates.) Orphaned as an infant, he was raised by Moses and Susan Carver, the owners of the plantation where he was born. Susan Carver taught him the basics of reading and writing.
George left the plantation at a young age to pursue an education, since no schools where he lived accepted African Americans. He attended several schools, living with foster parents for those years, before finally graduating high school. Carver applied to Highland College in Kansas. He was initially accepted at the all-white college but was later rejected when the administration learned he was Black. In the late 1880s, Carver befriended the Milhollands, a white couple in Winterset, Iowa, who encouraged him to pursue a higher education. Despite his former setback, he enrolled in Simpson College, a Methodist school that admitted all qualified applicants.

Carver initially studied art and piano in hopes of earning a teaching degree, but one of his professors, Etta Budd, was skeptical of a Black man being able to make a living as an artist. After learning of his interests in plants and flowers, Budd encouraged Carver to apply to the Iowa State Agricultural School (now Iowa State University) to study botany. In 1894, Carver became the first African American to earn a Bachelor of Science degree. Impressed by Carver’s research on the fungal infections of soybean plants, his professors asked him to stay on for graduate studies.

Carver worked with famed mycologist (fungal scientist) L.H. Pammel at the Iowa State Experimental Station, honing his skills in identifying and treating plant diseases. In 1896, Carver earned his Master of Agriculture degree and immediately received several offers, the most attractive of which came from Booker T. Washington (whose last name George would later add to his own) of Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) in Alabama. Washington convinced the university’s trustees to establish an agricultural school, which could only be run by Carver if Tuskegee were to keep its all-Black faculty. Carver accepted the offer and would work at Tuskegee Institute for the rest of his life.

Invention: 
Carver studied botany at the Iowa Agricultural College (now Iowa State University). In 1896, Booker T. Washington recruited him to the Tuskegee Institute's agriculture school. There, Carver taught a groundbreaking crop rotation method. The South desperately needed the new agricultural technique. The land was worn out by cotton growing because cotton drains the soil of its nutrients. Carver advised planting cotton one year, then soil-enriching peanuts or sweet potatoes the next.
Southern farmers followed his lead to great success, yielding peanut surpluses that many used to feed livestock. Carver also famously developed more than 300 uses for peanuts, from ink to hand lotion to cooking oil. While the common myth that he invented peanut butter is untrue, he did help popularize the food. Even President Theodore Roosevelt asked for Carver's advice on agricultural matters.

George Washington Carver’s Fame and Legacy:
In the last two decades of his life, Carver lived as a minor celebrity, but his focus was always on helping people. He traveled the South to promote racial harmony, and he traveled to India to discuss nutrition in developing nations with Mahatma Gandhi. Up until the year of his death, he also released bulletins for the public (44 bulletins between 1898 and 1943). Some of the bulletins reported on research findings but many others were more practical in nature and included cultivation information for farmers, science for teachers and recipes for housewives. In the mid-1930s, when the polio virus raged in America, Carver became convinced that peanuts were the answer.
He offered a treatment of peanut oil massages and reported positive results, though no scientific evidence exists that the treatments worked (the benefits patients experienced were likely due to the massage treatment and attentive care rather than the oil). Carver died on January 5, 1943, at Tuskegee Institute after falling down the stairs of his home. He was 78 years old. Carver was buried next to Booker T. Washington on the Tuskegee Institute grounds. 

While George Washington Carver's rise from slavery to scientific accomplishment has inspired millions, time has reduced him to the man who did something with peanuts. This documentary uncovers Carver's complexities and reveals the full impact of his life and work.
 
George Washington Carver PBS Documentary:
https://www.pbs.org/video/george-washington-carver-an-uncommon-life-qeru7s/

Carver Fun Fact:
In 1943, Carver's birthplace was declared a national monument, the first United States memorial dedicated to an African American. Congress also declared January 5th as George Washington Carver Day.

Books to read:

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