Black History Month: the Life of George Washington Carver

We all know February is the shortest month of all, but this month and all its holidays are flying by even faster than usual this year! Punxsutawney Phil already didn’t see his shadow, you’ve either endured Valentine’s Day with tons of chocolate or enjoyed the day with your significant other (hopefully still with lots of chocolate), and President’s day probably came and went without you even noticing. But have you stopped and thought about one of the most important celebrations February represents?

Black History Month is an important time to appreciate the contributions that black Americans have made in shaping our country’s history- especially as some of their actions have been overlooked due to racial stigmas. One such man, an amazing botanist, humanitarian, and inventor, had an enormous influence on modern agriculture yet is largely unknown. His name was George Washington Carver.

Carver’s journey is one from slavery to science. He was born into slavery in Missouri around 1864 (exact date unknown) on the property of slave owner Moses Carver. When George and his sister were orphaned in childhood, Moses and his wife, Susan, raised them as their own.

It was then that Carver began to realize his passion for nature. He spent his days collecting rocks, exploring, and painting with homemade paintbrushes and paints. Remembering this time as an adult he wrote, “I wanted to know the name of every stone and flower and insect and bird and beast. I wanted to know where it got its color, where it got its life – but there was no one to tell me.”

Carter yearned to gain a formal education more than anything else. After leaving home at 13, making his way 10 miles to a neighboring town, and gaining a high school education, Carver was accepted into Highland College in Kansas- where he was promptly denied admittance when the administrators discovered the color of his skin. Undeterred, Carver was eventually accepted into the botany program at Iowa State College. There, he excelled and established his reputation as a brilliant botanist. In 1896, none other than Booker T. Washington hired him to run the agriculture program at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, where Carver made some of his most important discoveries.

Although Carver ultimately gained more success than many of his black brethren, he never forgot where he came from. In fact, his crowning achievement, an agricultural method still in use today called “crop rotation,” almost exclusively benefitted the emancipated black farmers with whom Carver so strongly identified. You see, these farmers were attempting to make a living by selling cotton- but the longer they grew cotton, the more scraggly and unhealthy the crop was.

In the South, farmers had been planting cotton for decades. This crop in particular requires large amounts of nutrients to thrive and produce a substantial amount of the sellable fibers that are used to make clothing and other valuable cotton-based products. The plots of land freed slaves received were therefore already lacking in nutrients, and as they continued to farm the soil became more nutrient deprived and yielded less each year. Seeing this widespread problem, Carver began developing a solution.

Carver knew that peanuts were known for their ability to introduce important nutrients-especially nitrogen-to the soil. He realized that if farmers planted peanuts in between each cotton planting season, the soil would be more fertile and the next cotton crop would be much more fruitful. The desperate farmers took Carver’s advice and were overwhelmed by the results. The only issue? There was now a surplus of peanuts, a crop that was, in that time, primarily used as animal feed.

Carver again came to the aid of his people, developing over 300 different uses for the extra peanuts. He found a way to efficiently include them as an ingredient in laundry soap, shaving cream, shoe polish, linoleum, wallboard and even rubber! Thus, Carver essentially began the industry of chemurgy (the processing of agricultural outputs into non food or commercial products).

Carver’s dedication to helping others was his primary motivation. He never really gained much money from his inventions and only held 3 patents, but the fact that he was able to help others motivated him to keep working until he passed away in 1943. The incscription on his tombstone reads,”He could have added fortune to fame, but caring for neither, he found happiness and honor in being helpful to the world,” a perfect testament to his legacy.

George Washington Carver’s ideas and inventions are still used today. Organic farming is heavily reliant on crop rotation, and without the chemurgy movement we would have never conceived products like ethanol or even peanut butter. He struggled through the obstacle of prejudice while paving the way for many black scientists to come. Hopefully, more than anything, his giving attitude and thirst for knowledge will inspire black youth to pursue STEM careers in the future.

George Washington Carver is truly an example not only of black excellence, but of scientific excellence, as well. So yes, February is the month of groundhogs, presidents, and romance, but the next time you bite into a peanut-butter filled chocolate this month, remember George Washington Carver and his enduring legacy.

About the Author

EllenKrallEllen Krall is an undergraduate at UGA studying Plant Biology. When she’s not in classes or at the lab, she enjoys long walks in the State Botanical Garden, being kind of good at several instruments (violin, ukulele, banjo), and naming her Beta fish after famous scientists.