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THE REAL DIRT ON: George Washington Carver: Educator, Botanist, and Champion for Poor Farmers

George Washington Carver (front, center) with fellow professors at Tuskegee Institute, circa 1902.

By Carol Buckley.

I’ll never forget a talk about George Washington Carver given by an older student when I was in grammar school, but the lecture mainly focused on his research with peanuts. Carver was much more than someone who found a lot of uses for the legume, though. He was a premier botanist, environmentalist, and professor.

George was born in the early 1860s to Mary and Giles in what is now known as Diamond, Missouri. George was stolen as a baby, along with his mother, by night raiders who sold them in Kentucky. Though George's mother was never seen again, George was returned to Moses Carter, the German immigrant and owner of George's mother. George and his brother were raised by Moses and his wife, Susan.

George’s early path to education was fraught with prejudice. Susan taught George early on to read and write, but he had to walk ten miles to a neighboring town to further his education at a school for black children. He later attended an academy in Kansas while living with a foster family, but left the town after a black man was killed by whites. He finally obtained his diploma and was accepted by a college, where he was subsequently rejected because of his race. He took a break from academic endeavors and began farming his own land, where he also kept a plant conservatory.

George Washington Carver, circa 1910.

In 1890, when George was finally able to enroll at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa, he began to get the recognition he deserved. There are some wonderful photographs of George Carver, including one of him in a group art class and another of him standing next to a beautiful botanical painting for which he won a prize. His botanical renderings inspired his art professor to suggest that he study botany at Iowa Agricultural College and Model Farm (now Iowa State University) in Ames, where he was the first black student. After receiving his master’s degree (which his professors encouraged him to pursue) and national recognition for his plant pathology and mycology work, George became the first black professor at the College.

In 1896, Booker T. Washington, first president of Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University), enticed Carver to Alabama to head the Agriculture Department. George brought his first-hand experience of farming his own land to teach crop rotation and to experiment with different crops that would flourish in the region's nitrogen-depleted soil and provide self-sufficiency for African American farmers. He urged farmers to alternate cotton plantings with legumes and sweet potatoes, which could also be used for making dyes and paste. His inventions attracted the interest of Henry Ford, and both of them became interested in the potential for alternative fuels from plants. Thomas Edison apparently offered to set up a lab for Carver, but George turned him down and stayed at Tuskegee for nearly fifty years.

Carver allegedly had some contentious work relationships and never married. However, his fame afforded him the opportunity to meet with three American presidents, study with the Crown Prince of Sweden, and be the recipient of an award for membership in the Royal Society of Arts in England. His testimony in Congress in 1921 led to the protectionist Fordney-McCumber Tariff of 1922, designed with the intention of protecting American farmers from cheap imports.

George died from complications after a fall in 1943 and was buried next to Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee. His life savings of $60,000 was donated to the George Washington Carver Museum and to the George Washington Carver Foundation.

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