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George Washington Carver: Advocate for Southern Farmers

George Washington Carver (1864-1942) was an inspirational African American leader who popularized the twentieth-century transformation in Southern agriculture from cotton monoculture to a diverse polyculture that included crops such as peanuts and sweet potatoes. This January, Documenting the American South celebrates George Washington Carver Day by reviewing the life and accomplishments of the man who helped make the peanut a staple crop of the South.

Born just before the end of the Civil War, George Washington Carver (1864-1942) spent one year in slavery, a year that altered the course of his life. Carver's father died shortly after his birth, and his mother was kidnapped by slave raiders when he was only six weeks old, leaving him a nameless orphan. Moses Carver, the owner of George Washington Carver's parents, sent "out a rescuing party, which recovered him in exchange for a race horse valued at $300" (p. 13). Unsure if the sick, motherless child would live, Moses Carver and his wife waited until the baby was old enough to talk and work before naming him George Washington Carver "because of his faithful devotion to his work, and also his habitual truthfulness about everything" (p. 14).

As a boy, George Washington Carver spent most of his free time "roving the woods, and acquainting himself with every queer flower and peculiar weed" he found, filling his pockets with insects and other interesting natural artifacts (p. 14). At night, after his work was completed, Carver taught himself to read and write by memorizing "an old blue-back speller by the dim light of the burning logs in the fire place" (p. 16). When he finished with the speller at age ten, Carver left his home in Diamond Grove, Missouri, and walked eight miles to the nearest town that had a school in order to satisfy his "continuous desire of acquiring knowledge." He spent "the first few nights in an old horse barn" until he befriended "a Mr. and Mrs. Watkins, who adopted him into their family" (pp. 18-19).

Carver quickly discovered that his schoolmaster knew little more than he did and traveled to Fort Scott, Kansas, in search of better teachers. He completed his secondary education by age nineteen and applied to Highland College in Highland, Kansas, where he was accepted. After Carver had spent all of his savings to relocate to Highland, he attempted to enroll at the college but was rejected despite his letter of admission "because he was a Negro" (p. 21). Undaunted, Carver saved his money again and matriculated successfully at Simpson College in Iowa, where he excelled not only in academic subjects but also in extracurricular activities such as painting and singing.

Carver thrived at Simpson College, but an instructor "profoundly impressed with his talents and his ability . . . frankly told George that there was not much that he could hope for [at Simpson] in the way of developing his talents" (p. 22). In 1890, Carver transferred to the college now known as Iowa State, where he studied agricultural chemistry while supporting himself as the school janitor until earning his masters degree in 1896. After graduating, Carver taught briefly at Iowa State but left almost immediately to accept Booker T. Washington's (1856-1915) offer of a position at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.

Carver inherited dilapidated facilities in the Tuskegee agricultural department but immediately began "carving something out of nothing." Since the college could not afford necessary laboratory equipment, Carver created it out of "old bottles, broken china, and bits of rubber and wire" that his students gathered for him from local alleys (p. 27). Carver also collected samples of the local flora, roaming "over the hills with his case, stopping here and there and gathering plants" (p. 28). This was unusual behavior to the local residents, who came to him "for treatment and for medicine" because they believed "that he was a 'root doctor,'" a common term for nineteenth-century practitioners of hoodoo, a kind of magic.

Carver's walks served dual purposes: they allowed him to collect scientific specimens and to commune with God at the same time. Though Carver received advanced scientific degrees during an era in which Darwinian theories prompted conflicts between scientists and theologians, he sought to reconcile the differences between the two opposing systems of belief. In a Sunday evening Bible class, Carver taught students by illustrating "stories out of the Bible out of his own experience either as a boy or out of his laboratory work" (p. 52). Carver believed in accepting truth wherever he found it, and he told his students that "Science is Truth, and all Truth is of God," even paraphrasing a well-known Bible verse with the words "Ye shall know science and science shall make you free" (pp. 60, 56-57).

Hoping that science would free Southern farmers from poverty, Carver promoted peanuts as a cash crop, accelerating the resurgence of Southern agriculture after an infestation of boll weevils devastated Alabama cotton farmers in 1915. In 1916, Carver issued one of his many agricultural bulletins for the instruction of local farmers on the practical uses of the peanut, including recipes for peanut soup and peanut carrot fudge, and demand for his recipes was such that he reprinted the bulletin repeatedly. In 1915, slightly more than half a million acres were devoted to peanut cultivation; three years later, in 1918, peanut fields covered eight times as much territory, more than four million acres.

Carver both promoted the peanut and benefited from an explosion of interest in the plant. After testifying before Congress in 1921 about different products he had extracted from peanuts, including "soap and soap-sticks, face powder, face bleach, washing powder, milk, as good or better than cow's milk, several kinds of wood stains and dyes," Carver received national attention and was paid to lecture to diverse audiences (pp. 33-34). In addition to his work with peanuts, Carver also claimed to have discovered a number of new uses for the sweet potato, but he filed only three patents (none of which were commercially successful) and rarely documented his work with either crop.

Modern science has found flaws in Carver's work, but the practical agricultural advice in his bulletins did achieve his "primary object . . . of being the greatest assistance to the Southern Farmers; in helping them to have better farms, and happier homes, with plenty of food raised on the farms, and also a surplus to sell" (p. 30). Perhaps most importantly, Carver's example and innovative leadership inspired generations of poor African American farmers to aspire to more than a life of tenant farming. At his death in 1943, Carver bequeathed his estate of more than $60,000 to found the George Washington Carver Foundation, an institution that continues to benefit Southern farmers by funding practical agricultural research.

Works Consulted: Carver, George Washington, "1897 or Thereabouts—George Washington Carver's Own Brief History of His Life," George Washington Carver National Monument, The National Park Service, 4 Dec. 2008, ; Edwards, Linda McMurry, George Washington Carver, Scientist and Symbol, New York: Oxford University Press, 1981; Merritt, Raleigh H., From Captivity to Fame or The Life of George Washington Carver, Boston: Meador Publishing Company, 1929; Smith, Andrew F., Peanuts: The Illustrious History of the Goober Pea, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002.

Zachary Hutchins