George Washington Carver National Monument
When George Washington Carver was born, he had many things against him. He was a sick, weak, little baby. His father had just died, and his mother was left alone to care for him and for his brother, James. And even worse, he was the son of slaves. There was no hope for the future. But George Washington Carver was no ordinary man. He was a man who turned evil into good, despair into hope, and hatred into love. He was a man who devoted his whole life to helping his people and the world around him. George Washington Carver was born a slave in a cabin that belonged to his owners, Moses and Susan Carver. We are not sure of the date of his birth because records were not kept on slaves, but he thought he was born around the spring of l864. George's father was killed when he fell under the wheels of a wagon while hauling wood. He lived with his mother, Mary, and his brother, James, in Diamond Grove, Missouri. One night, members of a raiding party kidnapped baby George and his mother in the middle of the night. The Carvers had hidden James in the woods, but didn't have time to get to George and his mother. Moses Carver contacted a neighbor, John Bentley, and asked him to track down the kidnappers. He offered Mr. Bentley his fastest horse, Pacer. Bentley succeeded in tracking down the kidnappers and, although he found little George, he could not find his mother. Bentley returned a very sick baby George to the Carvers. George had contacted whooping cough and was close to death. The Carvers cared for the baby and nursed him back to health, but George remained small and weak for much of his childhood. He later remembered his early years as "a constant battle between life and death. Moses and Susan Carver raised Mary's two sons as their own. Slaves were not allowed to have last names, so when the slaves were freed at the end of the war, the boys took the last name of their former owners. Although the Carvers were very good to George, he missed his mother terribly and was often found standing beside his mother's spinning wheel. The Carvers were very successful farmers and well-respected. James would help with the heavy labor and because George was so frail, he spent much of his time helping Mrs. Carver with the cooking, cleaning, and laundry. He also spent time planting and tending the vegetable garden. George spent hours exploring the world around him and was constantly asking questions. He took a great deal of interest in the plants and enjoyed caring for them, especially the sick ones. He was so successful in gardening, that the neighbors began to ask George's advice about their plants, and soon he was known as the Plant Doctor. George spent hours exploring the world around him and was constantly asking questions. He wanted to know about everything. He first asked the Carvers to teach him what he wanted to know. Susan Carver taught him to read from her old spelling book and he studied it until he "almost knew it by heart," as he later said. But that only made George want to learn more. The Carvers tried to enroll George in the school in Diamond Grove. But he was turned away because black children were not to go to school there. In l877, at about the age of twelve, George left Diamond Grove and headed to Neosho, Missouri, a town about eight miles away, where there was a school for black children. He was taken in by a black couple, Andrew and Mariah Watkins, and to pay for his room and board, he helped with the chores. He learned all that he could in that one-room schoolhouse, but at the end of a year he knew he had to move on in his quest for learning. George spent the next ten years moving and working in his thirst for knowledge. In his spare time, Carver played music, sang, began painting, and took solitary walks to explore the countryside. By l885, George had saved enough money and he decided he was ready to go to college. He applied to Highland College in Kansas and was accepted. However, when he arrived to begin classes, he was turned away because Highland did not admit black students. Once again, George Washington Carver went to wander in search of an education. Sometime between l888 and l890, Carver's travels brought him to the small town of Winterset, Iowa. He set up a laundry business, went to church, and got to know the town and its inhabitants. It was here that he developed his artistic abilities. He was encouraged to apply to Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa, and he was accepted. He was the only black student enrolled. His favorite teacher was Etta Budd, his art teacher. Although Carver showed great promise as an artist, Etta noticed that he consistently drew plants. She encouraged him to enroll in the Iowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts in Ames, Iowa and study botany. George Carver wanted to do something that would benefit other African Americans and he had come to believe that nothing would help his people as much as a thorough knowledge of the science of agriculture. Iowa State was a leader in agriculture education and research. Carver had finally found a school where the teachers knew more about plants than he did. The need to improve farming practices was apparent to most farmers. With each passing year, the land was less and less productive. Many field were ruined by deep gullies and the spring and winter rains washed away fertile topsoil. What soil the water didn't erode, the wind blew away. George believed that everything in the natural world was part of a great whole and that human beings must work with nature in an environmental partnership. He also believed that " man is simply nature's agent or employee to assist her in her work." He experimented in grafting and cross-breeding to improve plants and their quality. George graduated in l894 and was persuaded to act as a teaching assistant while earning his master's degree. He was a wonderful teacher and encouraged his students to learn things for themselves. During his graduate studies, he studied fungi (primitive plants such as mushrooms) and plant diseases that they cause. Through his research, George Carver became known to agriculture departments throughout the country. Although Carver was happy at Iowa State, he looked forward to helping other African Americans improve their living conditions. He was especially interested in the offer that he received from Booker T. Washington, the founder of Tuskegee Institute. Washington thought that the best way for black Americans to overcome racial prejudice was to learn the practical skills that would enable them to become productive members of society. In April of l896, George Washington Carver accepted a position at Tuskegee in Alabama. For the first time, he would be living around other black people. When Carver arrived at Tuskegee, he was amazed at the state of the land. He began to experiment with three ways to improve the soil: using organic fertilizers to enrich the soil, rotating crops to prevent the soil from becoming worn out, and planting crops that return nutrients to the soil. Cotton was planted almost exclusively by his people and each year the yield was less. Carver encouraged farmers to rotate their cotton crops with peanuts and sweet potatoes. Cotton did not replace the nitrogen it used back to the soil, while peanuts and sweet potatoes did. However, after the farmers agreed to try this experiment, they ran into another problem-there was not enough market for the peanuts and sweet potatoes. That is when George went to work in his laboratory and invented over 300 ways to use peanuts and more than a hundred ways to use the sweet potato. George became very famous and renown and was asked to speak all over the United States. He went to Washington to speak in behalf of a tariff for the peanut industry. He persuaded Congress to approve the tariff and his appearance drew the nation's and the world's attention. He became known as a brilliant and inventive scientist. In l9l6, Carver was asked to join the advisory board of the National Agricultural Society. In that same year he became the only African-American member of Great Britain's prestigious scientific society, the Royal Society for the Arts. In l9l8, he was appointed as a consultant to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Carver was honored by both white and black groups. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People awarded him the Spingarn Medal for Distinguished Service to Science for his achievements in agriculture. In the late l920's, Carver began to work closely with the Commission for Interracial Cooperation and the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA). George Washington Carver never allowed anyone to give him money. He always insisted on earning his way. He was a small man that appeared often in a disheveled suit. His needs were small and many checks he received remained uncashed. When he died on January 5, l943, he was buried near Booker T. Washington on the grounds of the Tuskegee Institute. The American people are reminded of his importance at the George Washington Carver National Monument in Diamond Grove, Missouri, his birthplace. There one can see his artwork, his mother's spinning wheel, samples of his lacework, paints he made from clay, and products he had made from the sweet potato and the peanut. Carver was elected to the Agricultural Hall of Fame and was the second African American enshrined in the Hall of Fame for Great Americans. The epitaph on his headstone is a fitting summary of the man and his life's work: "He could have added fortune to fame but caring for neither, he found happiness and honor in being helpful to the world."
Aliki, (l988) A Week is a Flower: The Life of George Washington Carver. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
Benitez, Mirna. (l989) George Washington Carver: Plant Doctor. Milwaukee, WI: Raintree Publishers.
Kremer, Gary R. (l99l) Voices from American History. Austin, TX: Steck-Vaughn.
Moore, Eva. (l97l) The Story of George Washington Carver. New York, NY: Scholastic Inc.
Peanuts. (l959) The World Book Encyclopedia. Chicago, IL: Field Enterprises Educational Corporation.
Rogers, Teresa. (l992) George Washington Carver, Nature's Trailblazer. Frederick, MD: Twenty-First Century Books.
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