George Washington Carver | Black History Month

George Washington Carver was an African-American scientist, famous for his development of new inventions based on agricultural products, including several innovative uses for the common peanut.  

Carver was born into slavery around 1861 (indeed, his surname comes from the slave owner Moses Carver). He was kidnapped along with his mother, Mary, when he was just one week old. Baby George was retrieved, but his mother would never be seen again. With the abolition of slavery in 1865, George ceased to be a slave when he was about 4 years old. However, he remained on his former owner’s plantation until he was 10 or 12 years old. Moses Carver and his wife taught George to read and write, and life on the plantation left George with a keen interest in plants and animals. 

Despite the abolition of slavery, educational opportunities for African-Americans were limited. George Washington Carver in effect educated himself while working at a number of jobs, including household worker, cook, laundry worker, and farm laborer. Later on, in his late 20s, he obtained the equivalent of a high school education while working on a farm in Kansas. 

Newly qualified, Carver sought to take his studies further, but he was refused admission to a Kansas college because of his race. He did manage to enroll at Simpson College in Iowa, where he studied piano and art. His skillful drawings of the natural world eventually led to him transferring to Iowa State Agricultural College, the first Black student to attend there. Carver proved to be a brilliant student, and he achieved a bachelor’s degree in agricultural science in 1894 and a master’s in 1896. It was at Iowa State that Carver began the botanical research that would cement his reputation as a significant scientist. 

After graduating, Carver taught and carried out research at the Tuskegee Institute, a historically Black university in Alabama. Eventually, he became head of the agricultural department, which achieved national prominence for its research into methods of crop rotation and diversification of crop use, which helped to make the livelihoods of many people—including many who like Carver had once been enslaved—more secure. 

Carver encouraged the education of African-American students at Tuskegee, directly improving the economic stability of Black people in the area. He also introduced a mobile classroom that brought lessons to farm workers.

As part of his work, Carver discovered that the soils in Alabama were particularly suited to growing peanuts. However, when farmers began cultivating peanuts, they discovered that there wasn’t enough demand for them to make it commercially viable. In response, Carver invented a huge number of alternate uses for them, about 300 in total, including using peanuts to make milk, flour, ink, dyes, plastics, wood stains, soap, linoleum, medicinal oils, and cosmetics.

These and other scientific innovations he discovered led to George Washington Carver becoming one of the most prominent scientists, and one of the most famous African Americans, of his era. In fact, President Roosevelt even sought Carver’s advice on agricultural issues in the United States.

Carver used his celebrity status to promote science and education for African Americans, writing for a newspaper and touring the nation to speak about agricultural innovation and the opportunities Tuskegee Institute provided to Black people.

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