Famous Person: George Washington Carver

Related Topics: Crop Rotation


Sweet Potato

George Washington Carver National Monument

Tuskegee University

Grade Level: 3rd-4th

Author: Tanya T. Taylor


Table of Contents




Time Allotment

Resources Needed






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
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
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.



l. Students will be able to write three contributions made to society by George Washington Carver.

2. Students will be able to complete a handout listing the four things plants need to grow.

3. Students will be able to describe how the elements of light, water, air, and nutrients (or the lack of) affects plant growth.

4. Students will be able to graph data collected in their observation journals.

5. Students will be able to list five products made from peanuts.


Time Allotment: Approximately a week and a half (six class periods with plant observation of 2-4 weeks).


Resources Needed:


l. Think-Pair-Share. Individually, have students think of the various things that are made from peanuts or contain peanuts. In pairs, have students share the products they have thought of. In large group, have students contribute to a class list of all of the products they have thought of. (See Appendix D and E)

2. Mini Lecture. Using the class list, discuss the various uses for peanuts. Tell the class that a man by the name of George Washington Carver found over 300 uses for the peanut. Using the background information above, tell the story of George Washington Carver and his contributions to society. Have the students write at least three contributions George Washington Carver made to society.

3. Didactic Instruction. Pass out sheet (see Appendix A) that shows what plants need to grow. Discuss the four elements and their function to plant growth. Emphasize the need for nutrients and tell students that nitrogen is a nutrient. Inform students that the main crop in George Washington Carver's time and area was cotton. Explain how cotton does not replenish the nitrogen that it uses and so the soil becomes depleted and unproductive. George Washington Carver introduced peanuts and sweet potatoes as rotation crops to the farmers because these crops replenish the nitrogen in the soil. Pass out the blank version of the plant sheet (see Appendix B) and, without looking at the first sheet, have them fill in the sheet and color, if desired. You could have them construct their own, also.

4. Inquiry. George Washington Carver did many experiments to determine why the soil got worn out and would not produce as well after it had been planted in cotton for several seasons. Explain that the class is going to do an experiment that will allow the class to observe plant growth under two different conditions and see the effect nitrogen has on a plant. Separate the students into six groups. Three groups will plant lima bean seeds in plastic containers with soil. Three groups will plant their seeds in clear two liter bottles with paper towels used as wicks. (Instructions for two liter containers: Cut the clear bottle in half, tip the top half upside-down, and insert it into the bottom half with cap-end down. Insert paper towels into the bottom and leave enough paper towel in the top part to allow students to place bean seeds between paper towel and side of the bottle. Put water into the bottom half and the paper towel will act as a wick to keep the seeds moist.) Have groups prepare their containers and plant their lima bean seeds. Put three seeds in the soil and five or six around the bottle between the wet paper towel and the side of the bottle. Pass out a plant journal to each group and have them write some predictions their group may have as to the timeline of growth, differences and likenesses of plants in the two environments, and development. Each group will observe and record in their journals daily. Encourage students to look for details, measure growth accurately, and add sketched observations. Have them record addition of water, placement in the room (have plants placed in similar environments), or any other pertinent information.Have students observe and record until plants have leaves (2-4 weeks). After the plants have matured enough, have them compare the plants, record the differences in their journals, and make a class chart of the differences and similarities. Discuss the differences in the two groups from the chart. Ask children to speculate why there are differences and write their guesses on the board. Inform children that environments influence all living things, including people. Point out that the leaves on the plants grown in soil are darker green that the other group because they received nitrogen. Have them compare their predictions they made the first day with their data from the chart and see where they were correct.

5. Class Data Chart and Graphing. Construct a class chart using the data from their growth journals. Use any information you choose. Model how to construct a graph from data and guide students in constructing individual graphs using the data from the chart. You can also explore math concepts from the data such as computing percentages, averages, ratios, addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, fractions, etc. Write their computations on the board. You could also construct a time line from the data from each group.

6. Peanut Instruction and Activities. Teach the song "Peanut Butter" (see Appendix C). Show the class a picture of a peanut plant (found in encyclopedias, etc.) and explain how peanuts grow underground. It is a warm season annual plant. It is not a nut, but a legume (like the beans we planted). The bunch-type plant grows upright and, after the flowers on the plant fall away, the flower stalks grow longer, turn downward, and push themselves into the ground. The bud on the end of each stalk enlarges to form the peanut pod. The peanut is native to America and was being grown by the Native Americans when the first settlers came. Peanuts are only grown in the southern states. Pass out the two sheets illustrating the uses and products of peanuts (see Appendix D and E) and discuss. Explain that George Washington Carver created over 300 uses for peanuts because after the farmers took his advice and started growing them in rotation with other crops, they found they couldn't sell them. Have students add some items to their initial list generated in Think-Pair-Share. Tell the class that they are going to experiment with the peanut like George Washington Carver did. Distribute unshelled peanuts to class members and have them shell them. Place them in a blender and show them that the product is peanut butter. Discuss the change in form and how the peanut oil aids in the transformation. Pass out crackers and have children spread the freshly-made peanut butter onto their crackers to taste it. Discuss what makes store-bought peanut butter different from theirs. Have students write five products made from peanuts on a piece of paper and turn in for assessment.




l. Students will write in a reflection journal three contributions George

Washington Carver made to society.

2. Paper on elements plants need will be assessed.

3. Growth journal and observations will be assessed anecdotedly.

4. Graphs constructed from plant data will be informally assessed.

5. Papers listing five products made from peanuts will be assessed.





A: What a Plant Needs

B: What a Plant Needs (blank)

C: Song "Peanut Butter"

D: Uses of Peanuts

E: Products of Peanuts