One of the most accomplished and famous people of the 20th century, George Washington Carver overcame nearly every obstacle placed in his path to fulfill his lifelong passion for learning, using his hard-earned education to improve the lives of African Americans, and of people living in the deep South.
Carver was born a slave
No documents survive detailing Carver’s birth, but he was likely born around 1864 or 1865, on the farm of Moses Carver, near Diamond Grove, Missouri. His mother, Mary, was owned by Moses Carver, and his father, who died either before or after George’s birth, was enslaved on a nearby farm.
Shortly after his birth, Mary and George were kidnapped by Confederate raiders who hoped to sell them for profit. Moses attempted to track them down but was only able to locate young George, and he never saw his mother again.
Freed from slavery after the end of the Civil War but a sickly youth, George and his brother Jim were raised by Moses and his wife, Susan. The first in a series of couples who recognized and nurtured George’s native abilities and talents, they taught him to read and encouraged his early interest in plants and nature, with Carver working alongside Susan in her garden, and wandering the nearby woods and fields, collecting specimens.
Carver didn’t begin formal education until he was about 12
Unable to attend the local whites-only elementary school, George left the Carvers farm to pursue his education in Neosho, Missouri, where he lived and worked with a black couple, Mariah and Andrew Watkins. Carver learned more about plants and herbs from Mariah’s work as a midwife, but he found himself disappointed in the lack of academic rigor in the local black school.
By the late 1870s, Carver was on the move again. He joined a number of other African-Americans who decided to move west, primarily to Kansas, as part of a mass migration known as the “Exodusters.” He supported himself through odd jobs, before finally graduating from Minneapolis High School in Minneapolis, Kansas.
When Carver was denied admission to college, he educated himself
Carver received a full scholarship to Kansas’ Highland College, but when he showed up on campus to enroll, school administers refused to admit him — claiming they had been unaware of his race.
Once again, Carver took matters into his own hands. He settled a homesteading claim, where he dedicated his time to assembling an extensive collection of botany and geological specimens.
He eventually made his way to Iowa, where the bright young man once again found support from a local couple, John and Helen Millholand. They encouraged him to enroll in Simpson College, a small school open to all races. Despite his later fame as an agriculturalist, Carver initially studied music and art. (He even showed some of his paintings at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.)
He was the first black student - and faculty member - at Iowa State University
Carver’s art teacher at Simpson, Etta Budd, helped push him towards his life’s work. Fearing that Carver would struggle to make a living as a black artist, and knowing of his lifelong love of plants, Budd convinced Carver to switch his course of study to botany and to transfer to Iowa State University (then known as Iowa State Agricultural College).
Carver was accepted as the school’s first black student and received his bachelor’s degree in agricultural sciences in 1894 when he was around 30 years old. Recognizing his talents, the school asked him to stay on as an instructor while he obtained his master’s degree, which he finished in 1896, becoming the first African-American to earn an advanced degree in the field.
Carver spent more than 40 years at Tuskegee
Shortly after obtaining his master’s degree, Carver was lured away from Iowa by Booker T. Washington. Washington was a prominent educator and the founder of the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute (now Tuskegee University) in Alabama.
The school initially focused on offering vocational training for blacks, and in 1896, Washington pursued Carver to lead its new agricultural department.
Although he originally planned on staying at Tuskegee for just a few years, he remained there for the rest of his career. Despite initially limited funding, he soon created a thriving research institute and became a beloved and inspiring teacher to his students.
Like Washington, Carver advocated for increased educational opportunities for African-Americans, although both men were criticized by other black leaders, including W.E.B. Du Bois, who preached a more aggressive, confrontational approach to racism and segregation in America, and attacked Washington and Carver for their focus on vocational skills as a means of advancement.
Carver’s “movable schools” helped save Southern farmers
Carver became a pioneer of emerging agricultural theories like soil conservation and crop rotation, both desperately needed due to an overreliance on growing cotton that left the soil on many southern farms dangerously depleted.
Carver taught agricultural extension programs at Tuskegee and began his decades-long research experiments with alternative crops like sweet potatoes and, most famously, peanuts, developing more than 300 different uses and earning him lasting fame as the “peanut man."
But Carver realized that low literacy rates across the Deep South and a lack of educational opportunities made it difficult to spread his message where it was needed most. He offered night school classes and abbreviated agricultural conferences held during non-harvesting seasons.
Beginning in 1906, Carver helped organize a series of agricultural schools on wheels that traveled around Alabama offering practical, hands-on lessons and information on everything from crop, seed and fertilizer selection to dairy farming, nutrition and the best types of animals to breed in particular regions. These "moveable schools" reached thousands of people each month and were eventually expanded to include sanitation demonstrations and registered nurses who offered medical advice and assistance.
Carver patented very few inventions, preferring to allow others to benefit from his work. His focus on the importance of education remained a lifelong passion. Upon his death in 1943, he bequeathed $60,000 to establish the George Washington Carver Foundation, which provides funding for black researchers at Tuskegee.