Born into slavery and reared during the Reconstruction years in the South, George Washington Carver struggled through poor health, poverty and prejudice…to become a great benefactor, not only to his people…but to his country as well. Carver is known in history books as the “peanut man” – for his research into and promotion of alternative crops to cotton. As one of the world’s foremost experts in agriculture and horticulture, Carver, through his research and teaching at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama practically reinvented land management in the South. He is said to have compiled a list of over 300 uses for and by-products of peanuts such as cosmetics, dyes and paints, plastics, gasoline and nitroglycerin.
But his work as a creative scientist stretches far beyond that endeavor. He marveled at the world around him and his ability to inspire those closely associated with him may well have been one of his greatest lifetime achievements. As a living example of the importance of hard work, a positive attitude and a good education, Carver was instrumental in changing the stereotype of the time that the black race was intellectually inferior to the white race.
Here then, is the story of Carver’s life…a life that should not be forgotten, for it is full of hope, meaning and inspiration. To commemorate his life and inventions, George Washington Carver Recognition Day is celebrated on January 5, the anniversary of Carvers death.
For anyone looking for an inspirational story, for historians, teachers and students, and for young and old alike this DVD featuring stunning photography and a superb original music score is certain to be watched again and again.
© 2009 Marshall Publishing & Promotions, Inc. A Kaw Valley Films Production
KVFD-106 Length Approx: 30 Minutes ISBN 978-1-9636134-12-0 UPC 894190001868
GEORGE WASHINGTON CARVER – His Life and His Work STUDY GUIDE
George Washington Carver Color: 29 minutes * Subject Areas: U.S. History, Am. Biographies * Age Level: 4th Grade through Adult
Carver’s Childhood “Received of Moses Carver Seven Hundred Dollars in full consideration for a Negro girl named Mary age about thirteen who I warrant to be sound in body and mind and a slave for life.”
This stark statement from a bill of sale for his mother is the first recorded fact directly related to the life of George Washington Carver.
Late in the 1830’s Moses Carver and his wife Susan migrated from the eastern United States and settled (240 acres) near Diamond Grove, Missouri. Moses was a good farmer and the land provided an abundant living, but the Carvers, having reared two nephews and a niece, were growing old alone with no children of their own to help with the chores. So Carver made the decision to become a slave holder, and the black girl named Mary from a neighboring farm had a new home.
In time Mary had several children. Her second son was named George, but his birth date was not recorded. In later years, Carver said, “as nearly as I can trace my history, I was about two weeks old when the war closed…” He usually gave 1864 or 1865 as his year of birth, but some historians have placed it as early as 1860.
During the Civil War, the Carver farm was raided by bushwhackers. They took everything of value, including Mary, George, and probably a sister. George’s older brother, Jim who was about six years old, escaped by hiding in a fencerow. After the raiders headed south, Moses asked John Bentley, a union soldier, to track them down. Bentley succeeded in recovering the baby, George, who had been abandoned in Arkansas. The Carvers never heard of Mary again.
Now the Carvers were thrust into the role of foster parents. They were, in fact, the only parents that George ever knew. His father, a slave on a neighboring farm, had been killed in a logging accident shortly after he was born. The kidnapping ordeal had left George near death, and for some time he did not fully regain his health. His work on the farm consisted of the lighter chores around the house, while Jim worked in the fields with Moses.
The self-sufficient life of the small farmer and his prudent style of living made a lasting impression on George, and he called on those skills and values the rest of his life. Ample leisure time existed and George spent many hours outdoors observing and collecting. In later life he wrote: “day after day I spent in the woods alone in order to collect my floral beauties, and put them in my little garden I had hidden in brush not far from the house, as it was considered foolishness in that neighborhood to waste time on flowers…. Rocks had an equal fascination for me and many are the basketful that I have been compelled to remove from the outside chimney corner of that old log house. I obeyed but picked up the choicest ones and hid them in another place…”
Instilled with the perception of a naturalist and the inquiring spirit of a scientist, young George began a search for knowledge. “I had an inordinate desire,” he wrote, “for knowledge, and especially music, painting, flowers, and the sciences, algebra being one of my favorite studies.”
The Carvers encouraged him in his desire for learning, but it was not easy, for the only school in the neighborhood did not admit blacks.
Carver the Student In 1875 George left Diamond Grove to attend a school for blacks in Neosho, Missouri. Although never legally adopted by Moses and Susan, he took the Carver name and later added Washington as his middle name.
A black couple, Andrew and Mariah Watkins, made a home for him in their small house next to the school building. A deeply religious person, Mariah greatly influenced George’s philosophy of life with her teachings from the Bible. Her beliefs and attitudes stayed with Carver all his life.
After spending almost two years in Neosho and receiving a certificate of merit from his teacher, George went to Fort Scott, Kansas, where he stayed only a short while. He attended school and supported himself by cooking, laundering, and other odd jobs. Then he went on to Olathe, Paola, and finally Minneapolis, Kansas, where he completed his high school education, still earning his livelihood using the domestic skills he had learned on the Carver farm.
He learned typing and shorthand in a business school in Kansas City. “I was here to have a position in the Union Telegraph office as stenographer and typewriter, but the thirst for knowledge gained the mastery and I sought to enter Highland College at Highland, Kansas. Was refused on account of my color.”
With his hopes for higher learning crushed, Carver headed west. He staked a claim on (160 acres) of rolling grassland in western Kansas and settled down to farming. But successive droughts doomed his homestead. Carver, then in his mid-twenties, drifted to Winterset, Iowa, and was working as head cook in one of the large hotels when his dream of gaining an education started to become a reality. Dr. and Mrs. Milholland had become good friends of Carver, and, recognizing his talents, insisted that he enter art school. In 1890 they helped Carver enroll at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa.
Given the chance to pursue his education seriously and under normal conditions, he excelled at his studies. A painting of a yucca plant he remembered from his days in western Kansas won honorable mention at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Though torn between art and agriculture, he decided to transfer to Iowa Agricultural College, at Ames, and major in Botany. He never completely abandoned art; however, for even after his move to Tuskegee he continued to think, perhaps wistfully, of a career in art.
He was the first black man to study at Iowa State and after earning a B.S. in 1894, he was appointed to the faculty. In the fall of 1896, he received an M.S. with a major in Botany.
Just a few months before getting his M.S. he received an offer from Booker T. Washington, founder of Tuskegee Institute at Tuskegee, Alabama. Washington was searching for qualified instructors and Professor Carver was needed to fill a void in Agriculture. Tuskegee could offer little to compare with the fine facilities and the prestige of Iowa State, but Carver liked the offer. “Of course it has always been the one great ideal of my life,” he wrote Washington, “to be of the greatest good to the greatest number o f ‘my people’ possible and to this end I have been preparing my life for these many years; feeling as I do that this line of education is the key to unlock the golden door of freedom to our people.”
Carver at Tuskegee Carver’s work at Tuskegee Institute was varied. In later years he concentrated on his research, but in the early years, his work with students and local farmers was of prime importance. As a teacher, he gave his students not only the benefit of his scientific knowledge and understanding but subjected them to strong moral and character building influences. His ability to inspire those closely associated with him may well have been one of his greatest lifetime contributions.
When Carver arrived in Alabama he found that years of unsuitable farming methods had worn out the soil. Total dependence upon cotton tied the impoverished Alabama farmer, black and white, to the ups and downs of the market. Using his knowledge of the latest scientific advances and improvements in agriculture, he started writing bulletins and distributed them free to local residents. These concise, easily understood bulletins were a great help to the farmers who knew little about crop rotation, natural fertilizers, and a host of other good farming methods. Carver established an extension service that took new plant varieties from the experimental farm out to the small farms around Tuskegee. His purpose was to show local farmers the benefit of diversifying their crops. Although he worked with cowpeas, sweet potatoes, native clays, and a host of other plants and minerals, after 1916 he became associated with the peanut. While promoting the growing of peanuts, he compiled a list of about 300 uses and by-products. His fascination with the peanut led to much of the later fame and “popularity” and actually has come to overshadow his greater contributions.
Working in the lab, he always directed more effort to finding practical uses for products than to purely basic research. His philosophy was simple: “Look about you. Take hold of the things that are here. Let them talk to you. You learn to talk to them.” His advice to his students was equally to the point: “Learn to do common things uncommonly well; we must always keep in mind that anything that helps fill a dinner pail is valuable.” He urged them on in their studies with the admonition that “there is no short cut to achievement. Life requires thorough preparation – veneer isn’t worth anything.” Commenting on his own successful life, he said that “it is not the style of clothes one wears, neither the kind of automobile one drives, nor the amount of money one has in the bank, that counts. These mean nothing. It is simply service that measures success.”
Carver served at Tuskegee for more than 40 years, before he died there on January 5, 1943.
1. What did Carver believe to be his most significant contribution? Why?
2. How did the boll weevil accomplish what Carver could not in regard to crop rotation?
3. How did Carver’s religious beliefs affect his work as a laboratory scientist?
4. What were Carver’s reasons for not applying for patents?
5. How did Carver come to be known as “The Peanut Man”?
6. Discuss Carver’s attitude toward material possession (money, clothes, etc.).
7. What was Carver’s response to segregation and prejudice? What advantages might he have gained if he had been more militant?
8. Carver’s voice was very high pitched because whooping cough damaged his vocal cords when he was a child. How did this affect his public speaking?
9. Discuss the working and personal relationships between Carver and Booker T. Washington.
10. Carver had planned to stay at Tuskegee 3 or 4 years. Why do you suppose he stayed the rest of his life?
11. How might Carver’s life have been different if he had married and raised a family?
12. What were some of the most significant experiences that Carver had while he was growing up?