The Eminent George Washington Carver
by Yussuf J. Simmonds
“The Wizard of Tuskegee”
Sunrise: 1864–Sunset: 1943
“In honor of Black History Month, the Sentinel presents on the country’s foremost scientist”
George Washington Carver was born near Diamond Grove, Missouri (his exact birthdate is not known). His parents were the slaves of Moses Carver–that is where he received the name, ‘Carver,’ and so too was he. He was orphaned a baby–his mother was kidnapped and his father died; he never saw his mother again. He was exchanged for a racehorse, and by thirteen, he was on his own. Because he was very sickly and suffered, as a child, from whooping cough, he worked in his master’s house rather than in the fields. He learned to read and write, and managed to obtain a high school education despite tremendous obstacles, and with persistence, he was admitted as the first Black student at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa. From there he went on to Iowa State Agricultural College.
Young Carver showed a keen interest and a healthy attitude for growing things and for science, and he would often care for sick plants. Under his care, plants and flowers prospered, with seemingly little effort. He worked at various jobs to support himself and to pay for his education, and often experienced prejudice and hatred from Whites. In Iowa College, while he was the janitor, he earned his bachelor’s degree in agricultural science in 1894, and two years later, he earned his master’s degree from the same college. He would eventually become a faculty member at the same college.
His scholarship in agricultural sciences was so amazing and well known that Booker T. Washington offered him a position at the famous, yet fledging, Tuskegee Institute in 1896. He accepted and moved to Alabama. He became the director of its agricultural research facility, and persuaded many Southern farmers to plant peanuts, sweet potatoes, and other crops instead of cotton because cotton was eroding and destroying the soil. Back then, his approach to crop diversification and soil conversation was revolutionary and radical. He was one of the pioneers of the use of legumes to replace soil minerals depleted by the unchecked growing of cotton. When the Southern economy, “king cotton,” was challenged by the intervention of the boll weevil, Southerners and the representatives in Congress began to look at Carver’s discoveries as alternatives to the economic threat. He was summoned to Congress to report on his work. There he convinced skeptical congressmen that the South’s economy need not be held hostage to production of cotton. His agricultural discoveries and their techniques, particularly the improving the land and diversifying the foundations of the South’s economy were his major contribution and most impactful work.
He also made international news by making scouring powder from calcareous tripoli and siliceous tripoli. His research programs yielded 300 derivative from peanuts and about 118 from sweet potato. Carver even made synthetic marble from wood pulp.
It was his work in the field of science and agriculture that made him universally renown but he was also a painter and a musician. Tuskegee Institute installed the George Washington Carver Museum in his honor; it houses his plants, mineral and bird collections, the many products of his life’s work and discoveries, his paintings and research papers. On the campus, sits the George Washington Carver Foundation, a research center founded by Carver in 1940. A historical landmark was named on Route K-96 in Ness County, Kansas that was homesteaded by Carver. He received the NAACP Springarn Medal in 1923; a Liberty ship was named and a Polaris submarine were named for him; and there are over 20 schools all over the U. S. named in his honor. A three-cent stamp and a fifty-cent coin bear Carver’s head, and in 1990, he was inducted into the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame.
Though he was an inventor, he never patented any of his work he did at the Tuskegee Institute. He never sought fame or fortune; he donated over $30,000 of his life savings to his foundation, and willed the rest of his financial belongings to the same organization for his work to be continued after his death. He died in his sleep in 1943 and was buried alongside another great Black American pioneer, Booker T. Washington.