photo: Frances Benjamin Johnston,1906.
George Washington Carver was born into slavery during the Civil War, in the midst of bloody guerrilla warfare in Missouri . A tiny, sickly baby, he was soon orphaned, and his very survival beyond infancy was against the laws of nature.
That he, a Negro, became the first and greatest chemurgist, almost single-handedly revolutionized Southern agriculture, and received world acclaim for his contributions to agricultural chemistry was against all accepted patterns. But, seen from today's distance, possibly the most amazing facet of the life of this gentle genius is the manner in which he overcame enormous prejudices and poverty in his struggle from nameless black boy to George Washington Carver, B.S., M.S., D.Sc., Ph.D., Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, London, and Director of Research and Experiment at Tuskegee Institute, Alabama -- all without a trace of bitterness, with total indifference to personal fortune, and thought only to make the world, and America in particular, a better place for all mankind.
Read George Washington Carver's own story of his life, free from the George Washington Carver National Monument,
George Washington Carver did not know the exact date of his birth, but he thought it was in January, 1864 (some evidence indicates July, 1861, but not conclusively). He knew it was sometime before slavery was abolished in Missouri , which occurred in January, 1865. (The Emancipation Proclamation freed only those slaves whose masters were "in rebellion against the United States ," which was not the case in Missouri , where slaves were finally freed by state action.)
George grew up on the farmlands of Missouri , reared by his mother until her seizure by a band of raiders; and then by Moses and Susan Carver , his mother's former owners, who had a homestead near Diamond Grove. Because the frail little boy was not required to help with the heavy farm chores, he had many free daylight hours in which to do exactly as he chose, and he chose to explore the wonders of nature. He talked to the wildflowers, asking why some of them required sunlight and some didn't, and how roots that looked exactly alike produced different-colored blossoms, and, he said many years later, the flowers answered him as best they could. He investigated insects, tree bark, leaves, ferns, seeds, and the like and made all of them his precious playthings. He tended the roses, sweet peas, and geraniums around the Carver house, and they flourished so strikingly a visitor asked him what she might do to make her flowers prettier. "Love them" the boy answered.
Word spread around Diamond Grove that "Carver's George " had a magic way with growing things, and people began calling him the Plant Doctor. He made house calls, either prescribing remedies for ailing plants or taking them to his secret garden in the woods where he tenderly nursed them. His "magic" with growing things was largely the result of his patient testing of different combinations of sand, loam and clay as potting soil for various plants, his experimentation with different amounts of sunlight and water, and his tracking down of damaging insects and the like. When the Carver's finest apple tree began withering, George crawled along its limbs until he found some on which colonies of codling moths had taken up residence. "Saw off those branches," he told Moses Carver , "and the tree will get well." And it did.
Occasionally, George and his older brother Jim were allowed to go with Moses to Neosho , the county seat, about eight miles from Diamond Grove. Once, to George 's surprise, he saw a line of colored children straggling into a log schoolhouse. When the door closed behind them, he crept up to it and listened. They were reciting lessons, just like the white children at Locust Grove. He peeped through a knothole. The Negro teacher was reading to the pupils just like the white teacher at Locust Grove. It was, truly, a school for Negro children. George , who was 11 at the time, knew he had to attend that school.
Back at the Carver house, the boy told Moses , Susan and Jim that he was going to move to Neosho so he could go to school. They asked him where he would sleep and how he would eat. He replied that he would find a place where he could sweep and wash clothes and do the other things Susan had taught him in exchange for his board. They did not try to stop him, and early one morning they watched him start, alone, down the dusty road toward Neosho . He carried the best of his rock collection and a clean shirt in a bundle slung over his shoulder, and a package of food -- loaves of baked corn bread and strips of home-cured fat meat sandwiched in the middle -- under his arm. He turned once and waved a skinny arm, and then he was gone, driven by a deep yearning for the education that would help him find answers to all the questions buzzing in his mind.
George 's courage wavered after he got to the county seat, and he wandered up and down the streets until dark without speaking to anyone. Then, exhausted, he crawled into the loft of a barn near the schoolhouse, nestled down into the hay and fell asleep. At dawn the next morning, he ventured from the loft and crawled atop the woodpile in the yard behind a neat frame house next door to the school. The yard was grassy and had flowers in it, and that, to George , made it a good place to wait for the schoolhouse to be opened.
Suddenly, the back door of the house opened and a Negro woman came into the yard. She asked the big-eyed, frightened boy who he was and where he had come from. He stammered that he was Carver's George and he had come from the Moses Carver farm to Neosho to go to school so that he could find out what made snow and hail, and whether the color of a flower could be changed by changing the seed. The woman, Mariah Watkins , told him she doubted if he could find out those things in Neosho , or even in Joplin or Kansas City , but that she had a feeling he would learn them somewhere. She had him scrub at the pump, and then took him inside and served him breakfast along with her husband, Andrew .
Mariah was a midwife and washerwoman, and Andrew was a hard-working odd-jobs man. They were a religious couple, well thought of in the county seat. They told George they had no children and that he could stay with them and go to school if he'd work. Overjoyed, the boy began listing all the household chores the Carvers had taught him to do. "That's fine," Mariah interrupted. "You call us Aunt Mariah and Uncle Andrew , and listen now, don't ever again say your name is Carver's George . It's George Carver . Now run to school, and come back at noon for a bit of lunch."
With his keen, retentive mind and restless curiosity, little George was soon making faster progress than any of the other seventy-five pupils packed in Neosho's Lincoln School for Colored Children. And he was the happiest. He didn't join in the rough-and-tumble play in the schoolyard, but he was blissfully satisfied sitting alone in a corner, drawing pictures on his slate, while the other youngsters played. At home, he had a reader or speller propped in front of him even while he scrubbed cloths or washed dishes. He became expert at ironing -- even though he read while doing that, too.
By the end of 1876, George Carver had learned everything the teacher at the Lincoln School knew and everything in the books available to the school, and the teacher gave him a certificate of merit saying just about that. The 13-year-old boy faced the sad fact that, to continue his education, he would have to leave his happy life with Aunt Mariah and Uncle Andrew and his warm association with brother Jim , who had also moved to Neosho . He heard some neighborhood Negroes say they were going to move to Fort Scott , Kansas , a comparatively large town about seventy-five miles from Neosho . He offered to tend the mules along the way if they would let him ride in their wagon, and they agreed.
George Carver nearly starved before he found a job in Fort Scott . When he did find one, as a cook in a private residence, it did not leave him time to attend school. He lived in a tiny room under the back steps of the house, and saved every penny of his meager wages. As soon as he thought he had enough to carry him through a term of school, he quit the job as a cook. He rented a lean-to behind the stagecoach depot for a dollar a week, and enrolled at a big brick school which taught subjects he had never even heard of before. He allowed himself a dollar a week for food and bought almost nothing else. He studied by candlelight far into each night, and he read every book, pamphlet, and newspaper he could acquire.
By the end of the term he was penniless. He worked all summer washing and ironing bed linen for the hotel and doing laundry for businessmen and ranchers who came and went by stagecoach. By fall, he had enough money saved to go back to school.
It was a lonely life, and George was sometimes the object of cruelty and prejudice. After his schoolbooks were taken from him and destroyed by two white boys, he had to finish a school term without textbooks. He wrote long afterward, "Sunshine was profusely intermingled with shadows, such as are naturally cast on a defenseless orphan . . ." and they went on to tell that many people were kind to him and that he began to make friends over his laundry tub and bar of soap.
During George's second year in Fort Scott, he worked a few hours a day for a colored blacksmith, sweeping the stable and grooming and delivering newly shod horses. Late one afternoon, returning to his room from the blacksmith shop, he watched in horror as a Negro man was dragged from the jail and lynched. During the night, the troubled boy bundled up his few belongings and fled from Fort Scott , never to return.
During the next several years, George moved through the Western country, always managing to attend school. In the spring of 1885, by which time he was nearly six feet tall and had given himself the middle name of Washington, the proud young man graduated from Minneapolis, Kansas High School. He immediately applied for admission to Highland College , a small Presbyterian school in northeast Kansas , and was accepted for the semester beginning September 20,1885 . He spent the summer in Kansas City learning shorthand and typing, and working to accumulate a few dollars to tide him over at college until he could find employment.
On September 20, George arrived at Highland and presented himself to the principal, the Reverend Duncan Brown , D.D. , who had signed his admission acceptance. Dr. Brown shook his head, "There has been a mistake. You didn't tell me you were Negro. Highland College does not take Negroes."
George wandered about the country in a state of shock for a time. Then, in 1886, he filed a claim on a 160-acre homestead in Ness County , Kansas , built himself a sod house, and financed the planting of crops by doing housework at a nearby livestock ranch. He did not make a financial success of the farm, nor did he live there long enough to fulfill the five-year residence requirement for ownership, but he carried out agricultural experiments that were to be valuable to him later, and he saved enough money from the work he did at the livestock ranch to pay a semester's tuition at Simpson College, in Indianola, Iowa, which accepted him knowing, George made sure, that he was a Negro.
In September 1890, when George matriculated at Simpson , he was the only Negro among the 300 students, but he was accepted kindly. Simpson had been endowed by Matthew Simpson , a Methodist bishop, a friend of Lincoln's and a staunch advocate of the equality of all men.
After George paid his $12 tuition, he had ten cents left, and with that he bought some corn meal and beef suet. A Simpson teacher wrote, " George Carver has come to us with a satchel full of poverty and a burning zeal to know everything." The president of the college, Reverend Edmond Holmes, allowed George to set up a laundry in an unused shack at the edge of the campus, and arranged for him to buy equipment --tubs, washboard, flatiron, soap and starch -- on credit. In a few weeks, the young Negro was one of the most admired figures -- and certainly the busiest -- on campus. He was doing quite well in art and music studies as well as required college work. He was told by his teachers that he could have a successful career as either pianist or painter, but he was primarily interested in a life work that would best help those who needed help, and he decided that work would be in the field of experimental agriculture.
He reluctantly transferred from Simpson to the Iowa State Agricultural and Mechanical College at Ames , and there, under the direction of two able teachers who were to become his close friends-- James G. Wilson , director of the Agricultural Experiment Station, and Henry Cantwell Wallace , professor of Agriculture -- his future was shaped. Each of these men later served as Secretary of the United States Department of Agriculture. It was George Carver who interested Henry C. Wallace's youngest son, Henry Agard, in the mysteries of plant life, an experience Henry A. Wallace recalled with delight and gratitude after he became Vice President of the United States.
At Iowa State, Carver continued to do menial work to pay his expenses, but he took part in the social activities of undergraduate life and enjoyed the fellowship of the student body. He became a captain in the school's National Guard unit and strutted in plumed helmet and white gloves along with the others.
George Carver received his B.S. in Agriculture from Iowa State in 1894, when he was 30. He was appointed to the faculty and put in charge of systematic botany and all work in the college greenhouses. Dr. Louis H. Pammell, the distinguished botanist with whom George worked, called him "a brilliant student, the best collector and the best scientific observer I have ever known."
In April 1896, just after George finished the requirements for his M.S., he received a letter from Booker T. Washington , the young Negro educator who had been struggling to get Tuskegee Institute on its feet. This school in Alabama had been founded in 1881. Washington and the Board of Trustees had come to realize that, since 85 percent of the Negroes in the Gulf states were farmers, Tuskegee 's greatest need was an Agricultural Department. They had no one with knowledge of agricultural science to head the department, and almost no funds for its operation, but Washington had heard about the work of Mr. George Washington Carver up in Iowa and decided to appeal to him for help. He wrote Carver, "I cannot offer you money, position or fame. The first two you have. The last, from the place you now occupy, you will no doubt achieve. These things I now ask you to give up. I offer you in their place work -- hard, hard work -- the task of bringing a people from degradation, poverty and waste to full manhood."
For George Carver, there was no decision to make. "Why," he exclaimed excitedly, "this has been God's plan for me all along." His friends at Iowa State could not bring themselves to try to hold him, much as they wanted to.
It was a time when the South desperately needed scientific help. The one-crop "Cotton is King" economy that had once given wealth and power to the area was ruining it. The heavy-feeding cotton plant, on the same acreage year after year, drained the soil of its mineral and vegetable resources and left wasted land. The big planters cut or burned fine pine forests for new and fertile cotton-crop acres, and the little farmers left their barren, eroded fields to search for something better or to work for the big planters. With the arrival of the boll weevil in the 1890s, the farming South faced bankruptcy.
George Carver began his first class at Tuskegee with thirteen students; he saw it grow to seventy-five by the second semester. From the time he arrived at the Institute, he taught soil conservation through diversification of crops. He did not confine his teaching to his classroom. He went around the countryside, attending rural meetings and talking to one farmer or a hundred about crop trouble. He told farmers to rotate their crops and give the soil a chance to breathe, and he advocated the use of legumes to replace minerals depleted from the soil by cotton-growing. Pod-bearing plants, he explained, drew nitrogen from the air and enriched the soil. "Plant peanuts," he said. "That’ll keep the soil productive. And the boll weevils don't attack peanuts."
Soon the farmers were listening and producing peanuts in great abundance. But the solution of one problem brought another; how could all those peanuts, which, after all, were "just good for sometimes eating," be marketed profitably? To solve the agricultural-economic problem, George Carver set about work for which he was to become particularly famous. Experimenting in his Tuskegee laboratory, which he called "God's little workshop," he discovered nearly 300 valuable uses to which the peanut could be put; during Carver's lifetime, that once negligible crop covered five million acres and had an annual value of $200 million.
One of his most surprising peanut-related contributions to mankind was his extraction of a peanut oil which aided in restoring wasted tissues. To prove the value of the oil, he took photographs of the deformed limbs of children before treating them and then after a year of treatment. The remarkable improvement evidenced by the pictures started a stream of ailing children to his laboratory, and, with the help of his students, all were treated.
Carver went on from peanuts to produce such things as paving blocks from cotton and rubber from sludge. In collaboration with Henry Ford, he perfected a process for extracting rubber from the milk of the goldenrod. On the experimental farm at Tuskegee, he developed several new strains of cotton, the most important of which was "Carver's Hybrid," a cross between short-stalk cotton -- it had fatter boils but many were near enough to the ground to be ruined by rain splashed sand -- and tall-stalk cotton. The hybrid had the better characteristics of both, and he evolved strains of vegetables that were finer in quality and larger in size than had been grown before.
The versatile scientist made spectacular advances in soil fertilization, and he instituted a visiting day at Tuskegee for small farmers to come and learn about the use of various types of fertilizer. For those who couldn't come to the campus, he started a "school on wheels" to go into the communities and give demonstrations. His movable farm school was so successful the idea was soon adopted by the United States Department of Agriculture, and later put to use in several foreign countries.
Carver's first publication from Tuskegee, his 1898 pamphlet "Feeding Acorns to Livestock," was followed during the next three decades by forty-three others ranging from "How to Raise Pigs with Little Money" to "How to Meet New Economic Conditions in the South," all aimed at helping the small farmer help himself. They were followed in 1942 by a wartime favorite, "Nature's Garden for Victory and Peace." He was finding great satisfaction at that time in the fact that nutrition experts were earnestly emphasizing the value of peanut butter in a good diet, particularly for children. In an effort to reach a broad audience, George for a long time wrote a syndicated newspaper column, " Professor Carver 's Advice," in which he answered questions relating to scientific agriculture in simple language.
To the Wizard of Tuskegee came honors, doctorates, citations, medals, and lavish praise from every level of society, but he remained indifferent to personal fortune -- he repeatedly refused to accept an increase in his $125 monthly Tuskegee salary -- or to stylish apparel. He usually wore an aged cap and a battered old gray tweed suit with pants quite bagged at the knees, a condition resulting from the hours Dr. Carver spent kneeling while examining -- and talking to -- his plants. But there was always one delightful aspect of his attire: he never failed to have a fresh flower in his lapel.
In 1910, the Board of Trustees at Tuskegee established a Department of Agricultural Research with Dr. Carver in charge. He turned most of his classes over to others and thereafter devoted his time to creative science. He was much sought after for lectures in distant states, and he answered those calls when he could leave his work at Tuskegee . At the Institute he received delegations from all over the world and worked with them to solve agricultural problems, always refusing payments for these efforts to help those in need.
For many years, George Carver kept up his music, and one year even toured as a pianist to raise money for the Institute, but it was his painting that came second in his heart to his agricultural research. His pictures are unique in that he made all the paints he used from Alabama soils. He created many beautiful colors, including one blue which was believed to be a rediscovery of an old Egyptian blue for which modern pigment makers had been searching for years.
The 1936-37 school year at Tuskegee was dedicated to honoring Dr. Carver 's fortieth year at the school, and plans were made for the erection of the George Washington Carver Museum to recognize Carver's contributions to science and provide permanent exhibit rooms for his scientific collections and his paintings.
Carver's entire savings-- which, thanks to his bizarre frugality, totaled about $60,000 -- went, during his last years and at his death, to the Carver Museum and to the George Washington Carver Foundation, which has as its purpose the support of young Negroes engaged in scientific research.
George Washington Carver died quietly on January 5,1943 , and was buried -- with a bright, fresh flower in his lapel -- at Tuskegee beside his friend Booker T. Washington. Condolences poured in to the Institute from great men of all races, and lesser folk by the thousands mourned the friend and benefactor they had lost.
--excerpted from "The Gentle Genius," an article by Peggy Robbins.