Monday, August 1, 2011


On July 14, 1943, African American scientist George Washington Carver was honoured with a National Monument in recognition of his work in Biochemical Engineering. It was the first national monument dedicated to an African American and the first to an American who was not a US President. In his 1989 published book George Washington Carver Botanist Gene Adair writes: “On July 14, 1943 Carver joined US Presidents George Washington and Abraham Lincoln as the only Americans to have their birthplace designated as a national monument.” It was not the first honour Carver had received from the White House; in 1939 he received the Roosevelt Medal for restoring southern agriculture. The estimated year of Carver’s birth is 1864, one year before slavery was abolished in the US. He was born on a farm in Diamond Grove, Missouri. Carver, his mother Mary and his older brother Jim were owned by a white man and his wife, Moses and Susan Carver. The white Carvers had bought Mary in 1835 when she was about 13 years old and they owned her and her children even after slavery was abolished. There is no information about Carver’s father but there has been speculation that it was actually Moses Carver, the owner of Mary and her two surviving children. Not a far fetched speculation given the proliferation of rape of enslaved African women by the white families who were their owners and the owners’ relatives and friends.

The bill of sale Moses Carver received from William P. McGinnis when he bought Mary reads: “Received of Moses Carver seven hundred dollars in full consideration for a Negro girl named Mary age about thirteen years who I warrant to be sound in body and mind and a slave for life. Given under my hand and seal this 9th day of October AD 1835.” The historians tell us that when Carver was a baby, he and his mother were kidnapped by “slave raiders” and while the baby was recovered, Mary was never seen again by her children. This is the story Carver was told about the absence of his mother; the story he believed and repeated. Mary’s two children George and Jim Carver remained with the Moses Carver household as unpaid labour even though slavery was abolished.

Carver did not receive formal education until he was 12 years old. There were no schools in his neighbourhood that would accept an African American child so he moved to Neosho in Newton County, southwest Missouri, where he worked on a farm and attended school. He spent many years traveling and doing odd jobs including farming, cooking and laundering clothes. He was 15 years old in 1879 when he witnessed a white mob lynch an African American man in Fort Scott, Kansas. That traumatic incident caused him to flee the area even at the risk of not completing his education. After completing his high school education at Minneapolis High School in Minneapolis, Kansas he applied and received a letter of acceptance to Highland College in Highland, Kansas. In September 1885 when he arrived at Highland College he was refused entrance because the college’s administration had not known he was African American when they sent him the letter of acceptance. It was not until September 1890 that he gained acceptance to Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa, where he was the first African American student. Carver studied piano and art because the college did not offer science classes. He later transferred to Iowa Agricultural College (now Iowa State University) in 1891, where he gained a Bachelor of Science degree in 1894 and a Master of Science degree in 1896. Carver then became the first African American faculty member at Iowa College. Carver left Iowa College at the urging of Booker T. Washington, founder of the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute for Negroes (now Tuskegee University) one of the 105 Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in the US. Washington convinced Carver to travel south to Alabama and serve as the school's Director of Agriculture.

After becoming the institute's Director of Agricultural research, Carver devoted his time to research projects seeking to improve Southern agriculture. He conducted experiments in soil management and crop production and directed an experimental farm. At the time farmers in the Deep South mostly cultivated one crop – cotton- which had left the soil of many fields exhausted and almost worthless. Carver urged Southern farmers to plant peanuts, peas and soybeans to restore nitrogen to the soil. Carver developed the crop rotation method, which alternated nitrate producing legumes, such as peanuts, peas and soybeans, with cotton, which depletes soil of its nutrients. Carver developed 325 different uses for the extra peanuts, from cooking oil to printer’s ink. When he discovered that the sweet potato and the pecan also enriched depleted soils, Carver found almost 20 uses for the pecan, including making cheese, milk, coffee, flour, ink, dyes, plastics, wood stains, soap, linoleum, medicinal oils and cosmetics. He also found 118 uses for the sweet potato, including making flour, vinegar, molasses, rubber, ink, postage stamp glue, a synthetic rubber and material for paving highways.

In 1914, at a time when the boll weevil had almost ruined cotton growers, Carver revealed his experiments to the public and southern farmers soon began planting peanuts one year and cotton the next. Many southern farmers also began planting sweet potatoes and increased their income. The exhausted land was renewed and the South became a major new supplier of agricultural products. When Carver arrived at Tuskegee in 1896, the peanut had not even been recognized as a crop, but within the next half century it became one of the six leading crops throughout the USA; and in the South it was the second cash crop (after cotton) by 1940. Carver's efforts helped liberate the South from its excessive dependence on cotton. Carver received many honours in recognition of his work including election to Britain's Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce in 1916 and the Spingarn Medal in 1923.

Carver’s life story is documented in several children’s books available at the Toronto Public Library (TPL) and bookstores. While enjoying the dancing, drumming, food and other facets of African culture at Afrofest on Sunday, I was fortunate to find at Nile Valley Books a beautifully illustrated children’s book about Carver’s life, A Man for All Seasons; The Life of George Washington Carver by Stephen Krensky, published in 2008.

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