As we continue to learn about Black History and understand that we should be teaching African American history every day because it is America’s history, I want to take a closer look at George Washington Carver. The fact that he is so well known today is a testament to his life, his studies and his contributions to the field of botany.
George was born a slave to the Carver family. When George was just one year old, he was kidnapped along with his mother and sister. His owner searched for the family but only succeeded in finding George, whom he had to trade his best horse for.
Moses Carver and his wife Susan raised the young George and his brother James as their own and taught the boys how to read and write.
George was not a healthy child and was unable to help in the fields. Susan taught him how to cook, mend, embroider, do laundry and garden, as well as how to concoct simple herbal medicines.
At a young age, Carver took a keen interest in plants and experimented with natural pesticides, fungicides and soil conditioners. He became known as the “the plant doctor” to local farmers due to his ability to discern how to improve the health of their gardens, fields and orchards.
When he was 11 George left home to attend an all black school. He was looked after by an African American couple who continued to teach George the medicinal properties of herbs and plants. George left the school after two years, disappointed with the standard of education he received there, and for the next 10 years he travelled from city to city in the mid-west to find schools and work to get an education.
George attended a methodist college and went onto the Iowa State Agricultural School to study botany and was the first African American to earn a Bachelor of Science Degree.
Booker T. Washington encouraged the Tuskegee Institute to establish an agricultural school, which could only be run by Carver if Tuskegee was to keep its all-black faculty. Carver accepted the offer and would work at Tuskegee Institute for the rest of his life.
At Tusgekee, Carver discovered that rotating cotton crops with peanut crops produced better soil and increased crop yields. But farmers had to find ways to use the extra peanuts which traditionally had only been used as animal feed. George invented more than 300 uses for the peanut, including cosmetics, antiseptics, medicines, soaps, woodstains and cooking oil. Many of these did not become mainstream, but it is George’s work that took the humble peanut to an every day pantry essential we have today.
George took the name ‘Washington’ from Booker T. Washington and added it to his own. Carver died on January 5, 1943, at Tuskegee Institute after falling down the stairs of his home. He is buried next to Booker T. Washington at the Tuskegee Institute.