Friday, January 05, 2018

On This Day in 1943: Botanist, Inventor George Washington Carver Died

George Washington Carver was born into slavery in the 1860s and died today, January 5, in 1943. He was an American botanist and inventor. He became well-known to the public due to his active promotion of alternative crops to cotton and methods to prevent soil depletion.

While a professor at Tuskegee Insitutute, Carver developed techniques to improve soils depleted by repeated plantings of cotton. He wanted poor farmers to grow alternative crops, such as peanuts and sweet potatoes, as a source of their own food and to improve their quality of life. The most popular of his 44 practical bulletins for farmers contained 105 food recipes using peanuts. Although he spent years developing and promoting numerous products made from peanuts; none became commercially successful.

Apart from his work to improve the lives of farmers, Carver was also a leader in promoting environmentalism. He received numerous honors for his work, including the Spingarn Medal of the NAACP. In an era of very high racial polarization, his fame reached beyond the black community. He was widely recognized and praised in the white community for his many achievements and talents. In 1941, Time magazine dubbed Carver a "Black Leonardo."

George Washington Carver was born near what is now Diamond, Missouri, some time in the early 1860s. The exact date of his birth is uncertain and was not known to Carver – however it was sometime before slavery was abolished in Missouri in January 1865. His master, Moses Carver, was a German American immigrant who had purchased George's parents, Mary and Giles, from William P. McGinnis on October 9, 1855, for $700.

When George was only a week old, he, a sister, and his mother were kidnapped by night raiders from Arkansas. George's brother, James, was rushed to safety from the kidnappers. The kidnappers sold the slaves in Kentucky. Moses Carver hired John Bentley to find them, but he located only the infant George. Moses negotiated with the raiders to gain the boy's return, and rewarded Bentley. After slavery was abolished, Moses Carver and his wife Susan raised George and his older brother James as their own children. They encouraged George to continue his intellectual pursuits, and "Aunt Susan" taught him the basics of reading and writing.

Painting by Betsy Graves Reyneau
African Americans were not allowed at the public school in Diamond Grove. George decided to go to a school for black children 10 miles away. When he reached the town, he found the school closed for the night. He slept in a nearby barn. By his own account, the next morning he met a kind woman, Mariah Watkins, from whom he wished to rent a room. When he identified himself as "Carver's George," as he had done his whole life, she replied that from now on his name was "George Carver." George liked Mariah Watkins, and her words, "You must learn all you can, then go back out into the world and give your learning back to the people," made a great impression on him.

At the age of 13, due to his desire to attend the academy there, he relocated to the home of another foster family in Fort Scott, Kansas. After witnessing a black man killed by a group of whites, Carver left the city. He attended a series of schools before earning his diploma at Minneapolis High School in Minneapolis, Kansas.

Carver applied to several colleges before being accepted at Highland University in Highland, Kansas. When he arrived, however, they rejected him because of his race. In August 1886, Carver traveled by wagon with J. F. Beeler from Highland to Eden Township in Ness County, Kansas. He homesteaded a claim near Beeler, where he maintained a small conservatory of plants and flowers and a geological collection. He manually plowed 17 acres of the claim, planting rice, corn, Indian corn and garden produce, as well as various fruit trees, forest trees, and shrubbery. He also earned money by odd jobs in town and worked as a ranch hand.

In early 1888, Carver obtained a $300 loan at the Bank of Ness City for education. By June he left the area. In 1890, Carver started studying art and piano at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa. His art teacher, Etta Budd, recognized Carver's talent for painting flowers and plants; she encouraged him to study botany at Iowa State Agricultural College in Ames. When he began there in 1891, he was the first black student.

Carver continued there for his master's degree. Carver did research at the Iowa Experiment Station under Pammel during the next two years. His work at the experiment station in plant pathology and mycology first gained him national recognition and respect as a botanist. Carver taught as the first black faculty member at Iowa State.

In 1896, Booker T. Washington, the first principal and president of the Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University), invited Carver to head its Agriculture Department. Carver taught there for 47 years, developing the department into a strong research center and working with two additional college presidents during his tenure.

From 1915 to 1923, Carver concentrated on researching and experimenting with new uses for peanuts, sweet potatoes, soybeans, pecans, and other crops, as well as having his assistants research and compile existing uses. This work, and especially his speaking to a national conference of the Peanut Growers Association in 1920 and in testimony before Congress in 1921 to support passage of a tariff on imported peanuts, brought him wide publicity and increasing renown. In these years, he became one of the most well-known African Americans of his time.

Carver's work was known by officials in the national capital before he became a public figure. President Theodore Roosevelt publicly admired his work.

The United Peanut Associations of America invited Carver to speak at their 1920 convention. He discussed "The Possibilities of the Peanut" and exhibited 145 peanut products. By 1920, the U.S. peanut farmers were being undercut by low prices on imported peanuts from the Republic of China.
Postage stamp issued in 1948.

During the last two decades of his life, Carver seemed to enjoy his celebrity status. He was often on the road promoting Tuskegee University, peanuts, and racial harmony. Although he only published six agricultural bulletins after 1922, he published articles in peanut industry journals and wrote a syndicated newspaper column, "Professor Carver's Advice." Business leaders came to seek his help, and he often responded with free advice. Three American presidents—Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge and Franklin Roosevelt—met with him, and the Crown Prince of Sweden studied with him for 3 weeks. From 1923 to 1933, Carver toured white Southern colleges for the Commission on Interracial Cooperation.

Carver never married. At age 40, he began a courtship with Sarah L. Hunt, an elementary school teacher and the sister-in-law of Warren Logan, Treasurer of Tuskegee Institute. This lasted three years until she took a teaching job in California. In her 2015 biography, Christina Vella reviews his relationships and suggests that Carver was bisexual and constrained by mores of his historic period.

When he was 70, Carver established a friendship and research partnership with the scientist Austin W. Curtis, Jr. This young black man, a graduate of Cornell University, had some teaching experience before coming to Tuskegee. Carver bequeathed to Curtis his royalties from an authorized 1943 biography by Rackham Holt.

Carver died January 5, 1943, at the age of 78 from complications resulting from a fall. 

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