Dr. George Washington Carver rose from slavery to become a renowned educator, scientist, artist, and humanitarian. An innovator and idealist, he had a remarkable understanding of the natural world.
Carver devoted his life to research and finding practical alternatives to improving agriculture and the economic condition of African-Americans in the South.
From Slave to Student
Carver was born a slave on a small farm near Diamond Grove, Missouri, in 1865, “near the end of the war.” Moses and Susan Carver, his owners, reputedly opposed slavery. However, they needed labor to work their lands and acquired slaves, including Mary, George’s mother.
There was a lot of unrest in Southwest Missouri at that time. As an infant, George and his family were kidnapped by bandits and taken to Arkansas. His mother was never heard from again. The Carvers gave a reward when young George was returned to them.
They taught him to appreciate nature, learning, and self-sufficiency. As a young man, George began a lifelong habit of taking long walks and observing and collecting specimens. “Day after day I spent in the woods…to collect my floral Beautie(e)s…all sorts of vegetation seemed to thrive under my touch until I was styled the plant doctor, and plants from all over the county would be brought to me for treatment.”
Starting from childhood, and throughout his life, religion played an important role. It broke down social and racial barriers for Carver and was the inspiration for his research and teaching. His beliefs were universal and didn’t conflict with his scientific knowledge. In fact, the more Carver learned, the greater was his faith. “The Great Creator…permit(s) me to speak to Him through…the animal, mineral and vegetable kingdoms…” Carver was an active member of the YMCA, from his early college days to his last years.
Desire for Knowledge
As an African American, Carver was unable to attend the local white school. However, he had “an inordinate desire for knowledge.” The young boy attended school in Neosho, Missouri, and later moved to Kansas. Doing laundry and cooking paid for his tuition. Given the difficulties confronting African Americans who wanted an education, Carver took intermittent schooling breaks in the 1880s.
After homesteading in Kansas, Carver went to Simpson College, Iowa, in 1890 to study art. However, as an African American, he was not allowed to register. Eventually admitted to the class, he proved to be a talented artist. Doing laundry, cooking, and selling his paintings supported him again. Driven by his desire to contribute to his people, Carver switched to agricultural studies. He believed that he could find practical ways to benefit African-American farmers.
In 1891, Carver enrolled at Iowa Agricultural College at Ames to study agriculture. His teachers thought Carver “a brilliant student…and collector.” He earned a BS there in 1884 and worked as an assistant botanist at the experimental station. Carver graduated with an MS in agriculture in 1886. A skilled plant breeder and field collector, in particular of fungi, he developed expertise in plant diseases.
Arts and Crafts
As a child, Carver learned to how to draw and paint pictures. Later, as a college student he enrolled in art class. Although he switched to agricultural studies, Carver continued to paint all his life. One of his paintings won Honorable Mention in the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.
Carver found time in his hectic schedule to crochet, knit, and do needlework. He found these activities satisfying and they enabled him to produce useful items for friends. He had a great appreciation for the world around him, in particular, the materials found in nature. He dyed many of his own threads and fibers with natural dyes made from local walnut, mulberry, and ochre clay. He recycled old burlap and string bags into functional and attractive needlework. Bark fibers were woven into mats.
Carver collected clays locally and was fascinated by their natural colors. He refined the extracted pigments and made paints that interested several commercial paint companies. These jars were displayed in his laboratory, at county fairs, and in the original Carver Museum. Carver used Alabama pigments to paint the interior of a local church. He also used them in his own paintings.
He developed a rich array of house paint colors to encourage poor local farmers to improve the appearance of their homes. He arranged the pigments in pleasing combinations, ceiling colors on top, border and cornice colors in the middle tier, and wall colors on the bottom. The paints were used on the Tuskegee campus and throughout the area.
A Great Teacher
Looking to attract the best and brightest African-American professionals to Tuskegee, Booker T. Washington hired the young teaching assistant, George W. Carver, in 1896. The two men shared the belief that a practical education would make African Americans self-sufficient. In a letter to Washington, Carver said “it has always been the one ideal of my life to be of the greatest good to the greatest number of my people possible and to this end I have been preparing myself for these many years, feeling as I do that this line of education is the key.” Carver believed that Tuskegee Institute was the place that could “unlock the golden dawn of freedom to our people.”
A gifted teacher, Carver was assigned various responsibilities at Tuskegee over a long career. Although he was frustrated by Carver’s management and administrative shortcomings, Washington realized that Carver was “a great teacher, a great lecturer, a great inspirer of young men and old men.”
At schools, on farms, and county fairs, Carver urged others to recognize their own potential, and that of their surroundings. He was committed to learning by doing. Students were encouraged to “figure it out for themselves.” They need a thorough preparation to “do all common things uncommonly well.” Carver’s talks and writings were direct, practical, and engaging. His warmth and charm allowed him to develop and maintain close personal relationships with students, farmers and powerful philanthropists over the years.
Applying his wide-ranging research to finding practical solutions, Carver experimented with seeds, soils, soil enrichment, and feed grains. “Soil enrichment, natural fertilizer use, and crop rotation” was his message to students and farmers. Carver developed fertilizers to produce more food and better cash crops. As yields improved, the creative researcher developed new products from crops such as sweet potatoes and peanuts. His plant hybridization, recycling, and use of locally available technology was ahead of his time. Carver’s work on synthetic substitutes for petroleum products and paints was of great interest to industry. He also patented several inventions. All Carver’s efforts were geared to increasing African-American farmers’ economic independence.
Watch Struggle and Triumph: The Legacy of George Washington Carver
DURATION: 28 minutes, 18 seconds
DATE CREATED: 2016-05-19
CREDIT: George Washington Carver National Monument
DESCRIPTION: This 28-minute film explores the life of the George Washington Carver. The film features Altorro Prince Black as the adult George Washington Carver and Tyler Black as the young Carver, narration by Sheryl Lee Ralph, and music by Bobby Horton.