Today January 5th marks anniversary of George Washington Carver’s death, an agricultural scientist and inventor who revolutionized the farming industry. Carver was born into slavery before it was abolished and went on to earn a master’s degree in agricultural science from Iowa State University. He went on to teach and conduct research at Tuskegee University for decades, and his childhood home was designated as a national monument after his death, the first of its kind to honor a Black American.
Carver was born on a farm near Diamond, Missouri, on an unknown date between January and June of 1864. Carver and his mother and sister were kidnapped and sold as infants in Kentucky. Moses Carver, Carver’s white farm owner, hired a neighbor to find them, but the neighbor only found George, whom he bought in exchange for one of Moses’ finest horses. Carver grew up with little knowledge of his mother or father, both of whom died in an accident before he was born.
Moses and his wife Susan adopted Carver and his brother James and taught them to read and write. Carver, who was frail and sickly, learned domestic skills from Susan, such as cooking, gardening, and how to make simple herbal medicines, while James focused on working the fields with Moses. Carver developed an early interest in plants and became known as “the plant doctor” for his ability to improve the health of local farmers’ gardens, fields, and orchards.
Carver left the farm when he was 11 years old to attend an all-Black school in Neosho. Carver moved to Kansas a few years later after being dissatisfied with his education there, and eventually graduated from Minneapolis High School in Kansas in 1880. When the administration learned that he was Black, he was denied admission to Highland College in Kansas. Carver befriended the Milhollands, a white couple in Iowa, in the late 1880s, who encouraged him to pursue higher education. He enrolled in Simpson College, a Methodist college that accepted all qualified applicants, and began studying art and piano. Etta Budd, one of his professors, encouraged him to apply to Iowa State Agricultural School to study botany.
Carver was the first African American to receive a Bachelor of Science degree in 1894. His professors asked him to stay on for graduate studies after being impressed by his research on fungal infections in soybean plants. Carver received his master’s degree in 1896 and became Iowa State’s first Black faculty member. Booker T. Washington invited him to join the faculty of Tuskegee University in 1896, where he stayed for 47 years.
Carver created hundreds of products at Tuskegee that used peanuts (though not peanut butter, as is commonly claimed), sweet potatoes, and soybeans. He also developed crop rotation techniques that improved soil fertility, resulting in the growth of a thriving peanut and sweet potato industry in the South. Aside from his scientific contributions, Carver was well-known for his commitment to education and desire to empower others. He created a “learn-by-doing” curriculum that taught students practical skills while also teaching them about agriculture and scientific principles.
Carver’s influence went beyond the classroom. He was a member of several professional organizations and advised presidents and Congress on agriculture. In 1923, he received the Spingarn Medal, which is given annually by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to the African American who has achieved the most in the previous year or years.
His childhood home was designated as a national monument in 1953, the first of its kind to honor a Black American. President Jimmy Carter posthumously awarded Carver the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States, in 1977.
On January 5, 1943, George Washington Carver died at the age of 78. The exact cause of death is unknown, but he had been in poor health for several years due to a variety of illnesses, including several hospitalizations for pneumonia. Despite his failing health, Carver remained committed to his work, teaching and conducting research at Tuskegee University until his death. Thousands of people attended his funeral, and he was honored for his many accomplishments and contributions to agriculture and education.
Despite his many accomplishments and contributions, Carver faced numerous challenges and obstacles as a result of the time’s racial discrimination. He was frequently denied opportunities and recognition that his white counterparts received. However, he remained committed to his work and to assisting others, and his influence on agriculture and education is still felt today.
On this day, as we remember George Washington Carver’s life and work, let us consider the obstacles he overcame and the lasting legacy he left behind. His commitment to education and using science to better the lives of others is an inspiration to us all.