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George Washington Carver, a former slave, still a towering figure in science, education

19th February 2018   ·   0 Comments

More than 75 years after his passing, George Washington Carver remains a towering figure in Black history, American history, and in the fields of agriculture and science.

But as heralded as he was as an educator, agriculturalist, scientist and inventor, there is still much about his life and contributions that is not commonly known.

George Washington Carver, a Missouri-botanist and inventor, is widely known for the work he conducted after being recruited by Booker T. Washington to teach at Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama. He actively promoted alternative crops to cotton and methods to prevent soil depletion.

During his tenure as a professor at Tuskegee, Carver developed techniques to improve soils depleted by repeated plantings of cotton. He wanted poor farmers to grow alternative crops, such as peanuts and sweet potatoes, as a source of their own food and to improve their quality of life.

Apart from his work to improve the lives of farmers, Carver was also a leader in promoting environmentalism. He received numerous honors for his work, including the NAACP’s Springarn Medal. In an era of very high racial polarization, his fame reached beyond the Black community. He was widely recognized and praised in the white community for his many achievements and talents. In 1941, Time magazine dubbed Carver a “Black Leonardo.”

Carver was born into slavery in Diamond Grove, Newton County, near Crystal Place, now known as Diamond, Missouri some time in the early 1860s. The exact date of his birth is uncertain and was not known to Carver – however it was sometime before slavery was abolished in Missouri in January 1865. His master, Moses Carver, was a German American immigrant who had purchased George’s parents, Mary and Giles, from William P. McGinnis on October 9, 1855, for $700.

When George was only a week old, he, a sister, and his mother were kidnapped by night raiders from Arkansas. George’s brother, James, was rushed to safety from the kidnappers. The kidnappers sold the slaves in Kentucky. Moses Carver hired John Bentley to find them, but he located only the infant George. Moses negotiated with the raiders to gain the boy’s return, and rewarded Bentley. After slavery was abolished, Moses Carver and his wife Susan raised George and his older brother James as their own children. They encouraged George to continue his intellectual pursuits, and “Aunt Susan” taught him the basics of reading and writing.

At the age of 13, due to his desire to attend the academy there, he relocated to the home of another foster family in Fort Scott, Kansas. After witnessing a Black man killed by a group of whites, Carver left the city. He attended a series of schools before earning his diploma at Minneapolis High School in Minneapolis, Kansas.

Carver applied to several colleges before being accepted at Highland University in Highland, Kansas. When he arrived, however, they rejected him because of his race.

In early 1888, Carver obtained a $300 loan at the Bank of Ness City for education. By June he left the area. In 1890, Carver started studying art and piano at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa. His art teacher, Etta Budd, recognized Carver’s talent for painting flowers and plants; she encouraged him to study botany at Iowa State Agricultural College in Ames, Iowa. When he began there in 1891, he was the first Black student. Carver’s Bachelor’s thesis was “Plants as Modified by Man,” dated 1894.

Iowa State professors Joseph Budd and Louis Pammel convinced Carver to continue there for his master’s degree. Carver did research at the Iowa Experiment Station under Pammel during the next two years. His work at the experiment station in plant pathology and mycology first gained him national recognition and respect as a botanist. Carver taught as the first Black faculty member at Iowa State.

In 1896, Booker T. Washington, the first principal and president of the Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University), invited Carver to head its Agriculture Department. Carver taught there for 47 years, developing the department into a strong research center and working with two additional college presidents during his tenure. He taught methods of crop rotation, introduced several alternative cash crops for farmers that would also improve the soil of areas heavily cultivated in cotton, initiated research into crop products (chemurgy), and taught generations of Black students farming techniques for self-sufficiency.

During Washington’s last five years at Tuskegee, Carver submitted or threatened his resignation several times: when the administration reorganized the agriculture program, when he disliked a teaching assignment, to manage an experiment station elsewhere, and when he did not get summer teaching assignments in 1913–1914. In each case, Washington smoothed things over.

Washington praised Carver in his 1911 memoir, My Larger Education: Being Chapters from My Experience. Washington called Carver “one of the most thoroughly scientific men of the Negro race with whom I am acquainted.”

While a professor at Tuskegee, Carver joined the Gamma Sigma chapter of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity Inc. He spoke at the 1930 Conclave that was held at Tuskegee, Alabama, in which he delivered a powerful and emotional speech to the men in attendance.

From 1915 to 1923, Carver concentrated on researching and experimenting with new uses for peanuts, sweet potatoes, soybeans, pecans, and other crops, as well as having his assistants research and compile existing uses. In these years, he became one of the most well-known African Americans of his time.

Carver developed techniques to improve soils depleted by repeated plantings of cotton. Together with other agricultural experts, he urged farmers to restore nitrogen to their soils by practicing systematic crop rotation: alternating cotton crops with plantings of sweet potatoes or legumes (such as peanuts, soybeans and cowpeas).

In 1916, Carver was made a member of the Royal Society of Arts in England, one of only a handful of Americans at that time to receive this honor.

Although he only published six agricultural bulletins after 1922, he published articles in peanut industry journals and wrote a syndicated newspaper column, “Professor Carver’s Advice.” Business leaders came to seek his help, and he often responded with free advice. Three American presidents — Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge and Franklin Roosevelt — met with him, and the Crown Prince of Sweden studied with him for three weeks. From 1923 to 1933, Carver toured white Southern colleges for the ‘Commission on Interracial Cooperation.

Carver had been frugal in his life, and in his 70s he established a legacy by creating a museum of his work, as well as the George Washington Carver Foundation at Tuskegee in 1938 to continue agricultural research. He donated nearly $60,000 (equivalent to $1,043,121 in 2017) in his savings to create the foundation.

Carver never married. At age 40, he began a courtship with Sarah L. Hunt, an elementary school teacher and the sister-in-law of Warren Logan, Treasurer of Tuskegee Institute. This lasted three years until she took a teaching job in California.

Upon returning home one day, Carver took a bad fall down a flight of stairs; he was found unconscious by a maid who took him to a hospital. Carver died January 5, 1943, at the age of 78 from complications (anemia) resulting from this fall. He was buried next to Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee University. Due to his frugality, Carver’s life savings totaled $60,000, all of which he donated in his last years and at his death to the Carver Museum and to the George Washington Carver Foundation.

On his grave was written, “He could have added fortune to fame, but caring for neither, he found happiness and honor in being helpful to the world.”

Even as an adult Carver spoke with a high pitch. Historian Linda O. McMurry noted that he “was a frail and sickly child” who suffered “from a severe case of whooping cough and frequent bouts of what was called croup.”

McMurry also examined the theory that Carver’s vocal pitch was due to being castrated as a child. She noted that persistent rumors held he was castrated either by his kidnappers or his owner Moses Carver. She maintained these accounts were unlikely as “A person castrated before puberty almost never displays any secondary sexual characteristics and seldom grows to normal stature. While Carver’s voice never deepened, he reached normal height and grew facial hair.” She also pointed out that it was extremely unlikely that Carver would have maintained affection for Moses if he had castrated him, but he “retained obvious affection for Moses…After he left Diamond he returned on several occasions to visit the Carvers, even after Susan’s death.”

Carver was not expected to live past his 21st birthday due to failing health. He lived well past the age of 21, and his Christian belief deepened as a result.

Many honors and awards were bestowed upon Carver over the course of his lifetime including the following:

• 1923, Springarn Medal from the NAACP, awarded annually for outstanding achievement.

• 1928, honorary doctorate from Simpson College.

• 1940, Carver established the George Washington Carver Foundation at the Tuskegee Institute.

• 1941, The George Washington Carver Museum was dedicated at the Tuskegee Institute.

• 1942, Ford built a replica of Carver’s birth cabin at the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village in Dearborn as a tribute.

• 1943, Liberty ship SS George Washington Carver launched.

• 1950, George Washington Carver State Park named.

• 1951-1954, U.S. Mint features Carver on a 50 cents silver commemorative coin.

• 1965, Ballistic missile submarine USS George Washington Carver (SSBN-656) launched.

• 1969, Iowa State University constructs Carver Hall in honor of Carver – a graduate of the university.

• 1943, the U.S. Congress designated January 5, the anniversary of his death, as George Washington Carver Recognition Day.

Many school districts across the U.S. have schools named in honor of Carver.

On July 14, 1943, President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated $30,000 for the George Washington Carver National Monument west-southwest of Diamond, Missouri, the area where Carver had spent time in his childhood. This was the first national monument dedicated to an African American and the first to honor someone other than a president. The 210-acre national monument complex includes a bust of Carver, a ¾-mile nature trail, a museum, the 1881 Moses Carver house, and the Carver cemetery. The national monument opened in July 1953.

Carver was featured on U.S. 1948 commemorative stamps. From 1951 to 1954, he was depicted on a commemorative half dollar coin. A second stamp honoring Carver, of face value 32¢, was issued on February 3, 1998 as part of the Celebrate the Century stamp sheet series.

In 1977, Carver was elected to the Hall of Fame for Great Americans. In 1990, Carver was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. In 1994, Iowa State University awarded Carver a Doctor of Humane Letters. In 2000, Carver was a charter inductee in the USDA Hall of Heroes as the “Father of Chemurgy.”

In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante listed George Washington Carver as one of the 100 Greatest African Americans.

In 2005, Carver’s research at the Tuskegee Institute was designated a National Historic Chemical Landmark by the American Chemical Society.

This article originally published in the February 19, 2018 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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