George Washington Carver was one of the most prominent scientists and inventors of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, an American icon, and a true entrepreneur and lifetime student. His life was dedicated to educating, learning, and inventing new tools and technologies to better the lives of Americans and the world.
The exact date of his birth is unknown. George was taught to read and write by former slave owners Moses and Susan Carver, who raised him after the abolition of slavery. He eventually earned a high school diploma in Kansas, and applied to various colleges afterward, where he was accepted until the college learned he wasn’t white. After this rejection, Carver became a landowner through the federal Homestead Acts, and worked odd jobs for money. He planted rice and corn, along with miscellaneous garden produce and trees. George also maintained a small conservatory of plants and flowers, plus a large geological collection. He managed to get a loan in 1888 for education. In 1890, Carver began studying art and piano at Simpson College in Iowa. He painted and drew botanical samples, leading his teacher Etta Budd to encourage him to study botany at Iowa State Agricultural College. He soon became the first black student at the college. He was an excellent worker, and two professors persuaded Carver to continue his studies for a master’s degree.Carver’s work in plant pathology and mycology gained national recognition as a brilliant botanist. He became the first black faculty member at Iowa State, teaching and continuing his research. He helped sharecroppers in the South recover from a boll weevil disaster in 1892 and created a “mobile classroom” to bring lessons to people. In 1896, George Carver was invited to head the Agriculture Department at the Tuskegee Institute, where he taught for 47 years, developing curriculum and creating a renowned research center. Especially notable was his work on crop rotation, chemurgy, and teaching farming techniques for self-sufficiency.
Between 1915 and 1923, Carver put a lot of focus on peanuts, sweet potatoes, soybeans, pecans, and other unusual legume crops. He became famous for this work, especially on peanuts, and his hundreds of inventions. Part of Carver’s fame was due to being an expert witness during Congressional hearings in 1921. He represented the European-American agricultural industry, a rather unusual occurrence for the time because of segregation. But Carver was a well-known intellectual then, and his testimony was indispensable for getting a pro-farmer tariff passed.
Carver spent his final decades as a celebrity and esteemed source of knowledge. Business leaders and presidents consulted with him on topics of agriculture, business, and politics. He wrote newspaper columns and toured the country extensively, speaking about agricultural innovation, racial harmony, and modern social issues.
After his death in 1943, at the age of 78, his life savings were donated to the Carver Museum and the George Washington Carver Foundation for agricultural research. He had been a frugal man, and his life savings would be over a million dollars in today’s money. Efforts were made to create a monument to Carver even before his death. It didn’t take long for him to become the subject of the first national monument dedicated to an African-American.
During Black History Month, we honor George Washington Carver as an incredible example of leadership and invention, a social force for good, and an American entrepreneur.