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Celebrating Black History: George Washington Carver

Georgia Washington Carver

George Washington Carver is one of the most well-known and most celebrated Black scientists of the 20th century. While many may associate Carver with his work on peanut production, his contributions to advancing agricultural science and his influence on promoting sustainable (and more profitable) agriculture for Black Southern farmers during a perilous time for them in US history, truly cement Carver’s legacy as one of the greatest scientists and humanitarians of his time. 

Early Life 

George Washington Carver (ca. 1864 – 1943) was born into slavery in southern Missouri near the end of the Civil War. He was orphaned as an infant and spent his early years living on the Carver farm where his mother had been a slave. Here he was taught to read and write and developed a keen interest and love of botany and the natural world. At 11, George left the farm for a piecemeal education from different grade schools in Kansas while supporting himself with various jobs. Many of his jobs involved tending to plants and treating plant diseases. Carver later recalls this time: 

“Day after day I spent in the woods alone in order to collect my floral beauti[e]s and put them in my little garden…strange to say all sorts of vegetation seemed to thrive under my touch until I was styled the plant doctor, and plants from all over the county would be brought to me for treatment.” (Mackintosh, 1977) 


After earning his high school degree in Manhattan, Kansas, Carver began studying art and piano at Simpson College in Iowa. When his art teacher discovered his love of plants – and his talent for painting them – she encouraged him to pursue botany at Iowa State Agricultural College (now, Iowa State University). As the first African American student enrolled at Iowa State Agricultural College, Carver earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in agricultural science in 1894. His instructors were so impressed with his scholarship that they encouraged him to continue as a graduate student specializing in identifying and treating plant diseases. Upon earning his M.S. in 1896, Carver received several offers to teach at various institutions, but he decided to join the Tuskegee Institute (now, Tuskegee University) as head of the new Agricultural Department.  

While Carver, a committed educator and mentor as well as a scientist, was excited about this next step in his career, he recalled in a 1941 radio interview a feeling of disappointment as he traveled south to his new home: 

“When my train left the golden wheat fields and the tall green corn of Iowa for the acres of cotton, nothing but cotton, my heart sank a little…The scraggly cotton grew close up to the cabin doors; a few lonesome collards, the only sign of vegetables; stunted cattle, boney mules; fields and hill sides cracked and scarred with gullies and deep ruts…Not much evidence of scientific farming anywhere. Everything looked hungry: the land, the cotton, the cattle, and the people.” (Trei 2020)  

Time at Tuskegee 

Carver had expected an easy transition in bringing his scientific agricultural training to southern farming, but he quickly realized that he would need to employ a more pluralistic approach to help increase crop yields while helping Black farmers maintain healthy and sustainable farms. At this time, cotton was a highly lucrative crop and most farmers, including many share-crop farmers, planted it exclusively in hopes of maximizing earnings. Unfortunately, this monoculture-style of farming depleted the soils returning lower yields every year, while also preventing single family farms from planting other crops that they could use for food and other necessities. Carver went to work, researching ways to improve crop yields while encouraging farmers to diversify their planting. He developed a type of school-on-wheels that he called “the Jesup Agricultural wagon” which brought agricultural equipment and training to thousands of rural farmers.  

In his quest to help farmers diversify their farms with a variety of crops to replenish soils (i.e., crop rotation) while growing nutritious foods, Carver encouraged planting peanuts, among other nutritious crops like sweet potatoes, soy beans, and cow peas. As a legume, peanuts were a great option as they produce their own nitrogen through a mutualism with certain bacteria in the soil, making this crop a “triple threat”: it did not require application of expensive nitrogen fertilizer, it naturally replenished nitrogen in depleted soils, and it represented a protein-rich crop that could be a great source of nutrition for families. Carver realized, however, that in order to encourage peanut farming, he would need to provide resources demonstrating how peanuts could be used. This is in part where Carver’s legacy as the “Peanut Man” began. 

Carver published over 40 practical bulletins for farmers, many of which highlighted different uses of food crops such as peanuts (he is known for his demonstration of roughly 300 ways to use peanuts ("Carver Peanut Products)! He also became a spokesperson for peanut farming and production, speaking at the Peanut Grower’s Association in 1920. In 1921 Carver travelled to D.C. to lobby for a tariff on imported peanuts on behalf of the association. At this point in history, it was not conventional for a Black person to present testimony in front of Congress, but Carver withstood the initial snarky remarks from various congressmen and went on to give a testimony so compelling that he was given unlimited time to speak and closed to a standing ovation. The tariff was eventually passed, and Carver’s fame and celebrity as the “Peanut Man” would stay with him throughout the rest of his life. 

Legacy Today 

George Washington Carver’s legacy is often associated with peanuts, and this legacy lives on in modern-day agriculture at places like the University of Georgia where scientists continue to improve peanut crop production in a sustainable way. His legacy, however, is much more than that. He was a tremendous, well-rounded scientist, science communicator, and teacher, who cared deeply for the natural world and the people that interacted with it. He was often known to talk about the importance of “the mutual dependency of the animal, vegetable, and mineral kingdoms.” 

Carver’s efforts helped to prioritize sustainable agriculture that increased yields while restoring soils that had been depleted after so many years of intense cotton production. Perhaps more importantly, he helped empower impoverished  Black farmers to claim their financial independence during the Jim Crow era, where share-cropping was a common way to oppress Black Americans after the end of the Civil War.  

This article was written by K. Nollting, a postdoctoral researcher in Plant Biology.  



“Carver Peanut Products” (n.d.) Tuskegee University.  

Demby, Gene. “George Washington Carver, The Black History Monthiest of them All.” (Feb. 11, 2014). NPR: Code Switch. 

“George Washington Carver.” (Aug. 29, 2022). 

“George Washington Carver.” (Oct. 15, 2020). Science History Institute. 

Kaufman, Rachel. “In Search of George Washington Carver’s True Legacy.” (Feb. 21, 2019). Smithsonian Magazine. 

Mackintosh, Barry. “George Washington Carver and the Peanut.” (August, 1977). American Heritage. Vol 28, Issue 5. 

Trei, Kelli. (June 25, 2020). “George Washington Carver: Strengthening Society with Conservation Through Agriculture.” Biodiversity Heritage Library.  

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