Thursday, February 12, 2009

George Washington Carver

During the Civil War, slave owners found it difficult to hold slaves in the border state of Missouri, so Moses Carver sent his slaves, including the young child, George Washington Carver, and his mother, to Arkansas.

After the war, Moses Carver learned that all his former slaves had disappeared except for that young child; frail and sick, the now motherless boy was returned to his former master's home and nursed back to health.

Even though the Carvers told him he was no longer their property, George remained on the plantation until he was 12 years old. Longing for an education he wandered about, working with his hands and developing his keen interest in plants and animals. By both books and experience, George acquired a rudimentary education, doing whatever work came along in order to survive. He worked as a general household worker, hotel cook, laundryman, farm laborer, and homesteader. In his late 20s, working as a farmhand in Minneapolis, Kansas, Carver earned his high school degree.

After a university in Kansas refused to admit him because he was black, Carver enrolled at Simpson College in Iowa, where he studied piano and art; he then transferred to Iowa State Agricultural College in Ames, where he received a bachelor's degree in agricultural science in 1894 and a master of science degree in 1896.

In 1896, Carver left Iowa for Alabama to direct the newly organized department of agriculture at the Tuskegee Institute. There, Carver worked to improve the lot of black Americans through education and the acquisition of useful skills rather than through political agitation; he stressed conciliation, compromise, and economic development as the paths for black advancement in American society. Despite many offers elsewhere, Carver would remain at Tuskegee for the rest of his life.

Carver devoted his time to research projects aimed at helping Southern farmers improve their lot, demonstrating ways in which they might improve their economic situation. He experimented with soil management and crop production, and directed an experimental farm. Agriculture in the Deep South was in serious trouble because of the single-crop of cotton mentality, which left the soil exhausted and worthless.

Carver urged Southern farmers to plant peanuts and soybeans, which, since they belong to the legume family, could restore nitrogen to the soil, and provide the protein so badly needed in the Southern diet. He found that soils in Alabama were particularly well-suited to growing peanuts and sweet potatoes, but when the state's farmers began cultivating these crops instead of cotton, they found little demand for them.

So George Washington Carver thought about enlarging the commercial possibilities of peanuts and sweet potatoes, and ultimately developed 300 products derived from peanuts—cheese, milk, coffee, flour, ink, dyes, plastics, wood stains, soap, linoleum, medicinal oils, and cosmetics—and 118 from sweet potatoes--flour, vinegar, molasses, rubber, ink, a synthetic rubber, and postage stamp glue.

In 1914, when the boll weevil had almost ruined the cotton fields, Carver's experimentation paid off; many Southern farmers turned to peanuts, sweet potatoes, and their derivatives for income. Much exhausted land was renewed, and the South became a major new supplier of agricultural products. When Carver had first 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 US and, in the South, the second cash crop to cotton.

Carver's efforts liberated the South from its dependence on cotton.

Some scientists thought Carver more a concoctionist than a contributor to scientific knowledge, and many black Americans viewed him as subservient to the white majority. Carver was a small, mild, soft-spoken, man; these qualities endeared Carver to whites, who were charmed by his humble demeanor and his work at Tuskegee.

George Washington Carver came to stand for much of white America as a kind of symbol of the intellectual black American. Carver, himself, was uninterested in the role his image played in the racial politics. His great desire was simply to serve humanity; and his work, which began for the sake of the poorest of the black sharecroppers, paved the way for a better life for the entire South.

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