George Washington Carver
George was born into slavery in 1864 or 1865, in Diamond Grove, Missouri. The exact date is unknown. George, his brother James and mother, Mary, belonged to Moses and Susan Carver. George’s father was probably a slave on a nearby farm who was killed in an accident when George was an infant.
The Carvers – Baby George and his mother were stolen from the Carver farm by Confederate bushwhackers while James hid. The thieves must have thought George too sickly to earn a good price, and he was either abandoned or given away. In any case, the Carvers found George and accepted both him and his brother into their home. The childless Carvers, who never agreed with conventional slavery, treated the boys as if they were their own children. George and James never saw their mother again. The Carvers were the only real parents they ever knew. Since slaves rarely had last names, George and James later took the name “Carver” and used it as their own. As a very young child, George learned to appreciate nature, working in the family garden. He also had the woods and wildlife of Missouri as his backyard. He earned the nickname “the plant doctor” because of his ability to help plants thrive.
“I wanted to know every strange stone, flower, insect, bird, or beast,” Carver said.
School – George, although not a slave to the Carvers, was suppose to be able to attend the local church school when all slaves were freed. Prejudice still prevailed, however, and he was forced to attend a school eight miles away.
Neosho, MO – At the age of 12 (around 1877), George traveled to a nearby town to attend a school for black children. He slept all winter in a cold barn, did odd jobs around town for meals and went to school. The barn belonged to a black couple who was childless. They provided George better living quarters and meals in return for household chores. He could visit the Carvers on occasion but never lived with them again. Only a year later it was obvious that George must look elsewhere for a better education. He then left Missouri behind.
Fort Scott, KS – George was 100 miles away from his birthplace and beginning a quest for education that lasted over 20 years. He quickly found work doing domestic chores and began attending school. The housekeeping lessons he learned at Susan Carver’s side served him well, keeping him fed while others were starving.
High School – Olathe, Kansas, near Kansas City, became young George’s next stop. By 1880, he was on his way to Paola and then Minneapolis, Kansas, where he completed high school. He was acquiring an education and feeding his desire to learn in a mostly white school. The saddest part of this time was the loss of his brother. George saw Jim for the last time in 1883. Jim died a short time later of smallpox in Seneca, MO.
The Old College Try – Carver applied and was accepted to Highland College in 1885. Spending all of his money to get there, he was shocked to be turned away when the school officials saw that he was black. This frustration is probably what made Carver decide to become a farmer like Moses Carver and to give up on his education. He stayed on in Highland for a while, doing domestic work before trying his hand at something completely new and different.
Homesteading – Beeler, Kansas was a good place to start his new life, thought five years. At the end of those years, the homesteader was given the permanent title. George took advantage of the offer and began building a home and clearing the land. He also took an active part in community life by taking art lessons, joining the local literary society and playing accordion at community events. Homesteading was very difficult, however, and George decided it wasn’t the life he really wanted. Three years later he gave up this lifestyle and looked toward the East.
Simpson College – It was a friendship with Dr. and Mrs. Miliholland in Winterset, Iowa that led to George’s admission to Simpson College. This college in nearby Indianola accepted students without regard to race. He supported himself by opening a laundry. George studied art but did not take any science classes. His art teacher, Etta Budd, was the daughter of a horticulture professor at Iowa State. She noticed George’s interest in flowers and encouraged him to attend Iowa State.
Iowa State College – Carver blossomed at Iowa State as he joined the Debating Club, Art Club, German Club and YMCA. He achieved the highest rank in the National Guard Student Battalion and also became the first trainer for the football team. He earned his Bachelor’s degree in 1894. His teachers encouraged him to earn his Master of Agriculture degree and to teach freshman courses. He pursued both and became a gifted teacher.
Job Offers – Although Iowa State wanted to keep Carver on its teaching staff after his graduation, he felt compelled to help others in black colleges. He had offers from Alcorn Agricultural and Mechanical College in Mississippi and from Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in Alabama. In the end, Tuskegee allowed him to finish his master’s degree that summer before joining its faculty.
Tuskegee Institute – In October of 1896, Carver found himself in the Deep South. He had traveled over 1000 miles to a place where blacks were not treated in the same way he was used to being treated. He knew that this was the place to fulfill his dreams with research as a scientist and also a place where he could help his people realize all they could become following the end of slavery.
The Original Recycler – Having no real laboratory, Carver asked students to help him comb through garbage to find usable glass and containers for reuse. Everything was made useful, and nothing was thrown away. Carver believed everything had a purpose, even if that purpose might change over time.
A New Era – For years farmers had been planting cotton season after season. They were depleting the soil and actually producing less and less. Carver also watched the destructive path the boll weevil made as it worked its way through the South. He warned farmers that their cotton crops would disappear and all that would remain would be famine and unusable soil. With crop rotation Carver ushered in a new era in agriculture in the South. He encouraged the farmers to plant sweet potatoes, peanuts and soybeans to help restore the soil. These crops were easy to grow and provided the much needed nutrients for soil.
The Peanut Man – When the farmers did listen, they found themselves with a huge crop of peanuts and no market for their crop. Farmers were mad at Carver. The story goes that he locked himself in his laboratory and asked God why He made the peanut. Days later he emerged with over 300 products that could be made from the peanut plant. Years later Carver was asked to speak before Congress about these discoveries and the usefulness of peanuts.
Humanitarian – Carver believed his ideas and inventions were gifts from God. Therefore, he never accepted any money for them. Unlike many inventors of the time, Carver earned nothing when he might have become a millionaire. Patents were issued for many inventions, but only a couple were set up to benefit Tuskegee Institute after Carver died.
Honors – Carver wrote pamphlets in simple language and taught the things that helped people survive and prosper. To him the greatest reward was to see people learning and being self sufficient. However, he was given many honorary degrees and had many influential friends like Henry Ford and President Franklin Roosevelt. A museum and a foundation were also named for Dr. Carver.
Death – George Washington Carver died at Tuskegee Institute on January 5, to his friend Booker T. Washington.