George Washington Carver was born into slavery in 1864, in a nation exhausted by Civil War, but on the cusp of reunification and emancipation. Later, as one of America’s most preeminent agricultural scientists, he would help to revive the depleted soil of the American south.
He was a precocious youth, determined to improve himself through education despite the barriers of poverty and racism strewn in his path. Accepted at a Kansas college whose officials had no idea of his race, he was refused enrollment when he arrived. But the school that would later become known as Iowa State University, welcomed him as its first black student, and he threw himself into the study of plant biology. He would soon become the university’s first black teacher and enjoyed a growing reputation in his field.
But greater fame was to come when he joined the faculty of the Tuskegee Institute, the Alabama college led by the famed educator Booker T. Washington. His tenure there lasted nearly half a century, and he developed influential ideas about crop rotation that would restore vitality to soil. He became a national figure consulted by presidents called on to testify before Congress, and a prolific newspaper columnist.
Carver will forever be associated with the peanut, a crop he championed as a lucrative alternative for farmers and a source of nitrogen for the soil. Through his efforts the humble peanut became an essential ingredient of countless foods, household products, and medicines. Contrary to popular belief, he did not invent peanut butter, but his research, promotional work, and successful advocacy of tariffs helped the American peanut industry thrive. Years after his death, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., observed, “From oppressive and crippling surroundings, George Washington Carver lifted his searching, creative mind to the ordinary peanut, and found therein extraordinary possibilities for goods and products unthinkable by minds of the past.”
Despite the racism that had blighted his childhood and shadowed his later years, Carver never succumbed to bitterness, reflecting, “Fear of something is at the root of hate for others, and hate within will eventually destroy the hater. Keep your thoughts free from hate, and you need have no fear from those who hate you.”
He was sustained through these trials by his work and his abiding Christian faith, about which he spoke frequently. To him, God was an omnipresent and indispensable source of comfort and inspiration. He wrote, “Our creator is the same and never changes despite the names given Him by people here and in all parts of the world. Even if we gave Him no name at all, He would still be there, within us, waiting to give us good on this earth.” In addition to his teaching duties, Carver led a Bible class at the Tuskegee Institute for several years. His New York Times obituary reported, “he astonished his class when it reached the story of the manna-fed Israelites by producing a variety of the original manna, which he had gathered in the woods about Tuskegee.”
Carver never married and was alone when he fell down a flight of stairs in 1943. He died soon afterward, his life having spanned the most turbulent and transformative decades in the nation’s history. The man who had been born a servant during the administration of Abraham Lincoln was lauded on his death by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who declared, “The versatility of his genius and his achievements in diverse branches of the arts and sciences were truly amazing. All mankind is the beneficiary of his discoveries in the field of agricultural chemistry. The things which he achieved in the face of early handicaps will for all time afford an inspiration of youth everywhere.”
His gravestone bore the partially accurate inscription, “He could have added fortune to fame, but caring for neither, he found happiness and honor in being helpful to the world.” The frugal Carver, who indeed cared little for money, certainly enjoyed his fame. How could someone born in such humble circumstances not have enjoyed being courted by the rich and powerful, and having his writing read by thousands? But he was indeed helpful and a profound inspiration to many around the world.
Michael F. Bishop, a writer and historian, is the former executive director of the International Churchill Society and the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission. He is the author of We Shall Fight: Churchill’s Greatest Speech, to be published by HarperCollins.