Updated: Feb 17
In Missouri 1864, Moses Carver’s slave of nine years gave birth to a baby boy. George Washington Carver was born. Soon after, little Carver, his sister, and his mother were kidnapped by slave raiders, and they were resold in Kentucky. Moses was able to retrieve George, but none of his other family members were found. He grew up knowing very little about his parents and his heritage. Moses and his wife Susan taught George and his brother how to read and write as kids of their own.
While his brother, James, gave up his studies to work in the fields, George was a sickly child. So Susan taught him how to cook, mend, embroider, do laundry, garden, and concoct simple herbal medicines. From this experience, he started to express interest in plants, and he began his education at age 11 at an all-black school in a nearby town.
Andrew and Mariah Watkins took him in during his time at the school. Mariah was a midwife and was able to teach Carver many facts about medicines and knowledge of her faith. Two years later, he moved west in search of a challenging educational opportunity. He hopped all over the Midwest from school to school until he graduated from Minneapolis High School in Minneapolis, Kansas in 1880. He applied and was accepted to an all-white college, but was then rejected after administration discovered he was black.
In the 80s, Carver befriended the Milhollands, a white couple in Iowa who encouraged him to further his education. Carver then applied and was accepted to Simpson college, where he attended for a short time in pursuit of a teaching degree while studying piano and art. One of his professors was concerned that Carver would not be able to make a living as an African-American artist. So, Carver returned to another passion of his, plants and flowers, and went to study at Iowa State Agricultural School (now known as Iowa State).
In 1894, Carver became the first African-American to earn a Bachelor of Science degree. He did so well in his studies that his professors asked him to stay to continue in graduate school. He worked with mycologist L.H. Pammel to better identify and treat plant diseases. He then earned his master’s degree, and accepted an offer from Booker T. Washington for Tuskegee Institute in Alabama (now known as Tuskegee University). He convinced the university to open an agricultural school with an all-black faculty which Carver then ran for the rest of his life. He even demanded to have two dormitory rooms--one for himself and one for his plant friends.
By this time, Carver was very successful in his agricultural studies. He helped poor farmers with better strategies to save money and produce better crops. One of his most remarkable discoveries was Carver’s soil rotation idea. Because so many fields were growing cotton for such a long amount of time, the soil grew weak, dry, and nutrient-lacking. Carver learned that growing nitrogen-fixing plants like peanuts, soybeans and sweet potatoes could greatly improve the quality of the soil, and therefore produce more yield. This was an outstanding discovery that would make a difference in the future of farming. Carver then created the Jessup wagon, a sort of mobile classroom to demonstrate soil chemistry.
“When you can do the common things of life in an uncommon way, you will command the attention of the world.” -- George Washington Carver.
While Carver’s soil rotation technique was very useful for the production of cotton, it came with the consequence--an overwhelming production of peanuts. So, Carver developed numerous products that derived from peanuts. He introduced paints, stains, dyes, and writing inks, but he is generally credited for the peanut industry itself. He even went before the U.S. House of Representatives on behalf of the peanut industry. He received a standing ovation for his speech, and forever was remembered as the Peanut Man.
Up until the year of his death in 1943, Carver was determined to help people. He traveled to the south to promote racial justice and harmony. He even worked with Mahatma Gandhi to help find solutions for nutritional issues in India. Though no scientific evidence was found that supports the benefit of peanut oil, Carver even offered peanut oil massages during the Polio outbreak in the 1930s.
George Washington Carver died in January of 1943, but his legacy lived on. The president gave him his own monument, and he was also inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
Carver represents the African-American community and proves that there is a path to liberation, and you can make a huge difference out of something as little as a peanut.