In 1896 George Washington Carver, a recent graduate of Iowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts (now Iowa State University), accepted an invitation from Booker T. Washington to head the agricultural department at Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute for Negroes (now Tuskegee University). During a tenure that lasted nearly 50 years, Carver elevated the scientific study of farming, improved the health and agricultural output of southern farmers, and developed hundreds of uses for their crops.
As word of Carver’s work at Tuskegee spread across the world, he received many invitations to work or teach at better-equipped, higher-paying institutions but decided to remain at Tuskegee, where he could be of greatest service to his fellow African Americans in the South. Carver epitomized Booker T. Washington’s philosophy of black solidarity and self-reliance. Born a slave, Carver worked hard among his own people, lived modestly, and avoided confronting racial issues. For these reasons Carver, like Booker T. Washington, became an icon for white Americans. George Washington Carver’s interest in plants began at an early age.
Growing up in postemancipation Missouri under the care of his parents’ former owners, Carver collected from the surrounding forests and fields a variety of wild plants and flowers, which he planted in a garden. At the age of ten, he left home of his own volition to attend a colored school in the nearby community of Neosho, where he did chores for a black family in exchange for food and a place to sleep. He maintained his interest in plants while putting himself through high school in Minneapolis, Kansas, and during his first and only year at Simpson College in Iowa.
During this period, he made many sketches of plants and flowers. He made the study of plants his focus in 1891, the year he enrolled at Iowa State College. After graduating in 1894 with a B. S. in botany and agriculture, he spent two additional years at Iowa State to complete a master’s degree in the same fields. During this time, he taught botany to undergraduate students and conducted extensive experiments on plants while managing the university’s greenhouse. These experiences served him well during his first few years at Tuskegee.
When George Washington Carver arrived in Tuskegee in 1896, he faced a host of challenges. There was a lack of facilities and funds for the agricultural department, which consisted only of a barn, a cow, and a few chickens. Carver’s first task was to create a laboratory. A resourceful individual, he assembled a small group of students to collect materials that could be used to construct laboratory equipment – pots, pans, tubes, wire, etc. , and made the tools and devices necessary to conduct agriculture-related experiments.
There was also a lack of interest in the study of agriculture, which many of the students at Tuskegee associated with sharecropping and poverty. They tended to be more interested in learning an industrial skill or trade that would allow them to make a living beyond the farm. Carver dignified farming by infusing the discipline with science: botany, chemistry, and soil study. Over the course of a few years, Carver’s department, renamed “scientific agriculture,” attracted an increasing number of students.
Carver used scientific means to tackle the third challenge he faced at Tuskegee, widespread poverty and malnutrition among local black farmers. Year after year, farmers had planted cotton on the same plots of land and thereby exhausted the topsoil’s nutrients. By testing the soil, he discovered that a lack of nitrogen in particular accounted for consistently low harvests. While at Iowa State, Carver had learned that certain plants in the pea family extracted nitrogen from the air and deposited it in the soil. To maintain the topsoil’s balance of nutrients, Carver advised farmers to alternate planting cotton and peanuts.
This farming method proved effective and within a few years, farmers saw a dramatic increase in their crop production. Carver then created an outreach program in which he would travel once a month to rural parts of Alabama to give hands-on instruction to farmers in this and other innovative farming techniques. Because of Carver’s emphasis on the cultivation of the peanut, peanuts flooded the market and their prices dropped. This predicament presented Carver with yet another challenge, – how to prevent farmers from resorting to the exclusive cultivation of cotton, which had a higher market value.
Carver began to explore alternative uses for the peanut that would increase its market value. He developed over three hundred peanut products that included cheese, flour, and stains. Then, in 1921, he helped the United Peanuts Growers Association persuade Congress to pass a bill calling for a protective tariff on imported peanuts. The development of the peanut also helped Carver resolve the problem of malnutrition in the rural south. He stressed that the peanut was a valuable source of protein that could enrich farmers’ diets and improve their health.
As part of his extension program, Carver taught farmers’ wives how to preserve food and prepare tasty, well-balanced meals. For many black southerners who had never given thought to eating a tomato, which were once widely believed to be poisonous, Carver explained its nutritional value and demonstrated several recipes in which it could be used. Carver was also innovative with the sweet potato and the pecan, introducing approximately 100 uses for each of those two foods. Carver only patented three of his 500 agriculture-based inventions, reasoning, “God gave them to me, how can I sell them to someone else?
He lived frugally, accepting only a small portion of his salary, and donated his life savings to a fund in his name that would encourage research in agricultural sciences. In 1916 Carver was appointed to The Royal Society of Arts in London, England, and in 1923 he was awarded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s (NAACP’s) prestigious Spingarn Medal for his contributions to agriculture. The ingenuity and resourcefulness of George Washington Carver can be seen today in the hundreds of scientific and artistic items on display at the Carver Memorial Museum on the campus of Tuskegee University.