George Washington Carver received the Spingarn Medal from the NAACP for his research into alternative crops, improving the lifestyle in farming communities.
Overcoming the circumstances of his birth, George is credited with saving the agricultural economy of the Southern United States and developing hundreds of products derived from peanuts, soybeans and sweet potatoes.
Overcoming the odds
George Washington Carver was born in 1864 to Giles and Mary, an enslaved couple owned by Moses Carver, a German-American immigrant. It is thought that George’s father was killed in an accident and his mother was taken in a confederate raid. Following the abolition of slavery, Moses Carver and his wife, Susan, decided to raise George as their own son. He was educated at home and taught to help in the kitchen garden making herbal medicines. Sparking his interest, George was soon producing his own natural pesticides and fungicides, earning the nickname “the plant doctor” amongst local farmers.
When he was older, George applied to study at several colleges before being accepted into Highland Presbyterian College in Kansas. They were so impressed with his application that they offered him a full scholarship, however, when administrators learned of his race, his offer was withdrawn. Over the next few years he worked in a number of different jobs before eventually obtaining a bank loan to pay for his education. In 1888, he became the first black student to study at Simpson College in Iowa. At first he studied art and piano, but when his aptitude for science became clear, he was encouraged to apply to Iowa State Agricultural School to study botany.
Over the next few years, George excelled in his studies and in 1894 he became the first African American student to earn a Bachelor of Science. Iowa State professors Louis Pammel and Joseph Budd persuaded George to continue his studies to obtain a Master’s degree. During this time, his work at the Iowa Experiment Station in plant pathology, mycology and crop rotation earned him national recognition and George became the first black faculty member at Iowa State.
The Tuskegee Institute
In 1896, George moved to the Tuskegee Institute, one of the first African American colleges in the United States. In his new position he was determined to help the poor farmers of the southern states.
In a series of experiments, George determined that the yield of cotton obtained by these farmers could be markedly improved if they rotated their crops with peanuts - a simple crop to grow with excellent nitrogen fixation properties. He brought this knowledge to former slaves, now sharecroppers, by developing the “Jesup wagon”. This was a mobile classroom and laboratory, out of which he taught soil chemistry.
Following his tour of the south, farmers in the region were greatly pleased with their improved cotton yields, however the method produced excessive quantities of peanuts, much of which were left to rot in storehouses. George returned to his lab to solve this problem by developing a series of new products that could be produced from peanuts. Among these included flour, soap, shaving cream, ink, paper, insulation and wood stains. He also experimented with peanut-based medicines including laxatives and antiseptics. He introduced these new products to the public through a series of pamphlets and the market for peanuts skyrocketed.
The combination of higher cotton crop yields and a new demand for peanut products is often credited with saving the agricultural economy of the Southern United States.
His rise to fame
George went on to develop other methods for improving soil, using other crops such as sweet potatoes, soybeans and cowpeas. He also founded a research laboratory which worked to promote these new crops by developing many applications for them, including dyes, paints, plastics and diesel. George ultimately only patented three of his inventions as he believed that his work should primarily benefit the public.
“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.”
His work over this time gained him worldwide recognition with many, including President Roosevelt and Mahatma Gandhi, seeking his advice on agriculture and nutrition. In the last two decades of his life he toured the country promoting Tuskegee University, racial harmony and peanuts.
George died on January 5, 1943, at the age of 78 and was buried at Tuskegee University. George's life savings totaled $60,000, all of which he left to the George Washington Carver Institute for Agriculture at Tuskegee. Later that year, President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated funds to erect a monument at Diamond, Missouri, in his honour.
Words by James Sudlow
Published January 2016