George Washington Carver

National Historic Chemical Landmark

Designated January 27, 2005, at Tuskegee University in Tuskegee, Alabama.

Commemorative Booklet (PDF)

There is the popular image of George Washington Carver known to every schoolchild in the United States: he was born a slave, worked hard to gain an education and become a scientist, taught at Tuskegee Institute, and became the Peanut Man who discovered myriad uses for the lowly legume. Of course, the story is not that simple. Yet despite criticisms of Carver, there is no denying his role in developing new uses for Southern agricultural crops and teaching poor Southern farmers methods of soil improvement.


“George Washington Carver: Chemist, Teacher, Symbol” commemorative booklet
“George Washington Carver: Chemist, Teacher, Symbol” commemorative booklet produced by the National Historic Chemical Landmarks program of the American Chemical Society in 2007 (PDF).

George Washington Carver's Early Life

George Washington Carver guarded his image carefully. While he did not write extensively about his youth, he did leave behind snippets describing his hard early years. These writings tell of a poor orphan who sought knowledge and hungered for scientific discovery but who was sickly and weak. Carver's early years were indeed difficult, but he seems to have exaggerated his frailty. For example, in an autobiographical sketch he wrote in 1897, just as he was beginning his teaching career at the Tuskegee Institute, Carver claimed that when he was a child his "body was very feble [sic] and it was a constant warfare between life and death to see who would gain the mastery." Two paragraphs later comes this sentence: "Day after day I spent in the woods alone in order to collect my floral beautis [sic] and put them in my little garden…"3

In a 1922 sketch Carver wrote "I was born in Diamond Grove, Missouri, about the close of the great Civil War, in a little one-roomed log shanty, on the home of Mr. Moses Carver, a German by birth and the owner of my mother, my father being the property of Mr. Grant, who owned the adjoining plantation."4 Carver was never clear about when he was born, sometimes writing "about 1865," or "near the end of the war," or "just as freedom was declared." Since Missouri never seceded from the Union, and thus was not in rebellion when the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1863, slavery continued in the state until the adoption of a new constitution on July 4, 1865. So Carver was most certainly born a slave, probably in the spring of 1865.5

Carver's mother Mary was purchased as a 13-year-old girl in 1855 when Moses Carver decided that the need for help on his 240 acre farm trumped his antislavery views. The youngster knew neither of his parents since his father was killed in an accident before his birth and his mother disappeared under somewhat mysterious circumstances. When Carver was an infant his mother and he were kidnapped by one of the many bands of bushwhackers roaming Missouri during the turbulent Civil War era. A neighbor of Moses Carver was hired to find them, but succeeded only in recovering George, at the cost of one of Moses' finest horses. This meant that the young George would be raised by Moses and Susan Carver on their farm in Newton County, Missouri. Carver spent much of his boyhood assisting Susan with domestic chores, since his fragility apparently meant he could not help Moses with the farm chores. As a boy, Carver learned how to cook, mend, do laundry, and embroider. He also developed an interest in plants and helped Susan with the garden.

The youngster had a keen desire to learn, first by exploring the flora and fauna on Moses Carver's farm and by devouring Webster's Elementary Spelling Book, which "I almost knew… by heart."6 At the age of 11, Carver left the farm and traveled 8 miles to the county seat of Neosho to attend a school for Black children. For the first time, Carver was in a predominantly African-American environment. Previously, he had lived on the Carvers' farm in relative isolation; he had grown used to solitude and had developed a love of nature. Moses and Susan Carver had served as surrogate parents. But while he continued to return to the farm on weekends, he never lived permanently with the Carvers again.

In Neosho Carver acquired a set of Black "parents," Mariah and Andrew Watkins. He lived in the Watkins' modest three-room house in exchange for helping with household tasks such as laundry. Mariah Watkins appears to have had great influence on her 11-year-old charge. She was a midwife and nurse who had wide knowledge of medicinal herbs, and she was deeply religious. Her influence and the rather eclectic introduction he had had to religion at a little church a mile from the Carver farm imparted in young George a deeply felt but unorthodox and nondenominational faith and a belief in divine revelation. He later testified to the number of revelations he had received, recalling the first as a child when his wish for a pocketknife was answered in a dream in which he had a vision of a knife sticking out a half-eaten watermelon. The next morning, the young Carver found his pocketknife.7

Carver was eager to learn, but his first attempt at formal school proved disappointing since the schoolmaster at the Neosho knew little more than he did. Not satisfied with basic literacy, Carver decided to move west in the late 1870s, joining Black Americans disillusioned by the failure of Reconstruction in a vast migration to Kansas. For the next decade or so, Carver shuttled among numerous Midwestern communities, attending school fitfully, trying his luck at homesteading for a time, and surviving by using the domestic skills he had learned from Susan Carver and Mariah Watkins.

Sometime in the late 1880s Carver's wanderings brought him to Winterset, Iowa, where he met the Milhollands, a white couple who profoundly influenced his life and who he later credited with encouraging him to pursue higher education. The Milhollands urged Carver to enroll in nearby Simpson College. Carver was hesitant; his one previous attempt at higher education resulted in racial humiliation. He had applied to Highland College in Kansas and had been accepted, sight unseen. When he showed up to register at the all-white college, an official said his acceptance had been a mistake as the school had never admitted a Black person and had no intention to do so. Carver was reluctant to be rejected again.

But the Milhollands persisted and Carver eventually entered Simpson College, a small Methodist school in Indianola, Iowa, that admitted all qualified applicants, regardless of race or ethnicity. One Black person had attended the school before Carver, and there were three people of Asian descent still on campus. The school's Methodist affiliation fostered a deepening of Carver's faith and piety, and the school's open policy had a profound affect on his developing self-identity: "They made me believe I was a real human being," he later wrote.8 While at Simpson, Carver studied grammar, arithmetic, etymology, voice, and piano. But his main interest was in art, especially painting, in which he had dabbled as a young man. His teacher Etta Budd was at first dubious of Carver's talents, and although she changed her perception of him as an artist, she was skeptical about the chances of a Black man earning a living as an artist. When she learned of his interest in plants, Budd encouraged Carver to study botany and pushed him to enroll at Iowa State, the agricultural college in Ames, where her father taught horticulture.

Budd's suggestion evidently posed a dilemma for Carver. He loved painting, but he shared her doubts about his ability to succeed as an artist, and he wondered whether as a painter he could make a contribution to the welfare of African Americans. Now in his mid-twenties, he had come to believe that he had divinely granted talents that should be used to improve the lot of Black Americans. This, he decided, he could do as a trained agriculturalist.

Besides, while he was giving up a career in art it was not as if he had decided to pursue something in which he had no interest. He had long studied plants and he already had developed skills in raising, cross-fertilizing, and grafting plants. He quickly made an impression on the faculty of Iowa State College, and his professors encouraged him to stay on as a graduate student after his senior year. Working with L.H. Pammel, a noted mycologist, Carver honed his talent at identifying and treating plant diseases.

Carver obtained his Master of Agriculture degree in 1896 and immediately received a number of offers. He was asked to join the faculty of Alcorn Agricultural and Mechanical College, a school for Black people in Mississippi. The faculty at Iowa State wanted him to stay and teach. But it was an offer from Booker T. Washington that proved most attractive. Washington had persuaded the trustees of Tuskegee Institute to establish an agricultural school. Since Washington wanted the faculty to remain all Black, and since Carver was the only African-American in the country with graduate training in "scientific agriculture," he was the logical choice. Carver was at first hesitant to go to Tuskegee, but Washington was persuasive and on April 12, 1896, Carver accepted, writing that "it has always been the one great ideal of my life to be of the greatest good to the greatest number of 'my people' possible and to this end I have been preparing myself 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."9

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The Tuskegee Institute

Tuskegee's origins were inauspicious. The school was founded on July 4, 1881, in a one-room shanty near Butler Chapel AME Zion Church with Booker T. Washington as the first teacher and a student body of 30.10 The actual credit for the school's origins goes to George Campbell,11 a former slave owner, and Lewis Adams, a former slave who could read and write despite a lack of formal education and who appears to have been a tinsmith, shoemaker, and harness-maker. Adams was approached by W.F. Foster, who was running for re-election to the Alabama Senate and wanted the support of African-Americans in Macon County. Foster asked Adams what he wanted in exchange for delivering votes from Black people. Adams requested Foster's support for an educational institution, and so the Alabama legislature passed a bill to establish a Negro Normal School in Tuskegee.

The initial legislation authorized $2,000 for teachers' salaries but nothing for land, buildings, or equipment. But while the school may have been poor, it had a vision from the beginning. That vision grew out of Washington's experience at Hampton Institute, a Virginia school established during Reconstruction, and it found expression in three objectives. First, Tuskegee was to concentrate on training students to be teachers and educators. Second, many Tuskegee students were taught craft and occupational skills geared to helping them find jobs in the trades and agriculture. And finally, Washington wanted Tuskegee to be "a civilizing agent:" as such education took place not only in the classroom but also in the dining hall and dormitories. Washington insisted on proper behavior and absolute cleanliness on the "Tuskegee plantation." He kept careful watch over Tuskegee's buildings and grounds as well as the dormitory rooms and table manners of faculty and staff.

Under Washington's adroit leadership the school quickly grew, moving the year after its founding to 100 acres of nearby abandoned farmland, which became the nucleus of the present school. Washington won widespread support for the school in both the North and the South. He traveled widely and spoke frequently, and convinced many wealthy and prominent people to donate money. Among the school’s early benefactors were Andrew Carnegie, Collis Huntington, and John D. Rockefeller. Washington was a skilled fund raiser, served as adviser to presidents, and helped found schools throughout the South. But he was not without his critics. W.E.B. Du Bois, for example, took exception to Tuskegee's emphasis on vocational training, arguing that it tended to keep Blacks people in a subordinate role. Du Bois favored stressing traditional higher education.

Washington died in 1915 and the debate over educational philosophy diminished as Washington's successor, Robert Russa Moton moved Tuskegee into a more traditional, degree-granting program with the establishment of a College Department in 1927. In 1985 Tuskegee became a university and now has doctoral programs. Today, the school has 3,000 students on a campus that includes 5,000 acres and more than 70 buildings.

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George Washington Carver and Booker T. Washington

As the most prominent African-American of his day, Booker T. Washington had tremendous influence on southern race relations from 1895 to his death in 1915. Much of this stemmed from Washington's speech at the Atlanta Exposition of 1895 in which he advocated the "doctrine of accommodation."12 The so-called Atlanta Compromise urged Black people to accommodate to the reality of white control and acquiesce in disfranchisement and social segregation. In return, white people should encourage and reward Black progress in economic and educational development. Washington told Black people "to cast down their buckets" where they were and climb the ladder of economic success through the old virtues of hard work and thrift. "The opportunity to earn a dollar," he said, "in a factory just now is worth infinitely more than the opportunity to spend a dollar in an opera-house." Washington asserted that Black people should for the foreseeable future eschew demanding political and social rights, saying those rights would follow economic independence. "No race," he stressed, "that has anything to contribute to the markets of the world is long in any degree ostracized."

Washington's racial philosophy mirrored the times. The abolitionist spirit of the Civil War and Reconstruction had resulted in Black people winning many civil and political rights. But even before the end of Reconstruction in 1877 those rights were being eroded. Over the next 20 years the North and the federal government effectively abandoned protection of the former slaves, leaving it to white southerners to work out racial relationships. The gradual erosion of political and social rights accelerated in the 1890s during the political turmoil of the Populist era, when attempts to forge an alliance of the dispossessed of both races foundered on the race-baiting appeals of the politically entrenched. For the next half-century all white people, regardless of socio-economic status, tacitly agreed to submerge class differences in the interest of racial separation.

George Washington Carver readily accepted Washington's racial philosophy and his program of interracial cooperation in the economic sphere. Carver's own success demonstrated to him the importance of economic development in raising the economic status of former slaves. And since the vast preponderance of southern Black people remained tied to the land, Carver fervently believed that his training as an agricultural scientist had prepared him for Tuskegee.

But in reality Carver was not prepared for Tuskegee. He had spent most of his life living and working around white people; now he found himself in a community of Black people where his dark skin made him suspect among the generally lighter-skinned faculty and students. He came from the North to teach "scientific agriculture" to southern farmers who believed they already knew how to farm. Many on the faculty resented Carver's exorbitant salary of $1,000 a year plus virtually all expenses for a man who did not have a family. At the time, the average salary for a Tuskegee faculty member was less than $400 a year. Some resented Carver's demand, which was met, to have two dormitory rooms, one for him and one for his plant specimens when other unmarried faculty lived two to a room.

Carver expected that as director of the newly created Agricultural Experimental Station he would devote most of his time to research. Washington was not hostile to research, but he also expected Carver to manage the school's two farms, teach a full regimen of classes, serve on numerous committees (a chore Carver particularly disliked), and sit on the institute's executive council as well as insure that the schools water closets and other sanitary facilities functioned properly. Above all, Washington and Carver were very different men who were almost fated to clash. Washington was a pragmatist always in a hurry to get things done; Carver was a dreamer who only wanted freedom to tinker in his laboratory, experiment with plants, or if the spirit moved him, pick up a brush and paint. In addition, the well-organized Washington resented the disorganized, administratively sloppy, and shabbily dressed Carver.

To make matters worse, Carver had a running feud with George Bridgeforth, a subordinate who was not reticent in campaigning for Carver's position. Bridgeforth openly criticized Carver to Washington and the latter appeared to often take Bridgeforth's side and repeated his criticisms to Carver, who found the dispute distasteful. But Carver often refused to accept Washington's suggestions, which the principal admitted were just "a polite way of giving orders."13 The dispute ran on for years, and Washington careened from trying to satisfy Carver to issuing him ultimatums.

Part of the problem stemmed from Carver's insistence on having a laboratory for his exclusive use and to be relieved of his teaching duties. Washington's response to this was clear: "We are all here," he said, "to help the students, to instruct them, and there is no justification for the presence of any teacher here except as that teacher is to serve the students."14 Washington tried to placate Carver because he genuinely recognized Carver's "great ability in original research," but he refused to allow the scientist to completely stop teaching.15 Washington's successor, Robert Russa Moton, who took over in 1915, was more accommodating, relieving Carver of all teaching except summer school.

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Chemurgy: The Agricultural Chemist

George Washington Carver believed he had a God-given mission to use his training as an agricultural chemist to help improve the lot of poor Black and white Southern farmers. He did this by teaching farmers about fertilization and crop rotation and by developing hundreds of new products from common agricultural products. In addition to his work as a scientist, Carver served the cause of science, in the words of his chief biographer, "magnificently as an interpreter and humanizer, providing an essential link between researchers and laymen and enabling many to reap the benefits of others' work by helping them to apply it to their own circumstances."16

Late in Carver's life he became a devotee of the chemurgy ("chem" from chemistry; urgy, Greek for work) movement. The term was used to describe scientists, agriculturalists, and industrialists who were determined to put chemistry to work to find nonfood uses for agricultural surpluses. One of the prime backers of chemurgy was Henry Ford, who Carver variously addressed in letters as "My beloved friend" and "The greatest of all my inspiring friends."17 Ford visited Tuskegee in 1938, and Carver was Ford's guest in 1940 at the automaker's Georgia estate.

But Carver did not need the imprimatur of Henry Ford or the formal title of a movement to explain his role as a scientist, for in truth Carver dedicated his entire scientific work to the goals later advocated by the chemurgy movement. Carver's laboratory at Tuskegee, almost from the beginning of his tenure at the Institute, developed hundreds of new uses for agricultural products. The need for this resulted in part from Carver's initial success in increasing agricultural productivity on the cotton-depleted, tired, old soils of the South. On the 10-acre experimental station at Tuskegee Carver was able, by using good cultivation practices and rotating soil-enriching plants like cowpeas and beans, to dramatically increase soil productivity.

For example, on a one-half acre plot Carver increased the yield of sweet potatoes in a few years from 40 bushels to 266 bushels. He showed that when he took land on which cotton had been planted, a crop which robs soil of nutrients, and planted nitrogen-fixing legumes, like peas and beans, he was able to increase yields significantly when the land reverted to cotton a few years later. Carver accomplished this without the use of commercial fertilizers, an expense beyond the reach of most poor Southern farmers, many of whom were sharecroppers or tenant farmers. Carver was aware that "every operation" he performed had to be within the reach of a "poor tenant farmer with a one-horse equipment."18

Carver's successes with planting legumes of course led to his encouraging Southern farmers to turn to these crops. This became even more urgent with the devastation in the early 20th century of the cotton crop due to the boll weevil. But if Southern farmers were to be convinced to grow crops other than cotton (or other traditional staples such as tobacco and rice), there had to be a market for peas, sweet potatoes, soybeans, and the like. This need pushed Carver into the laboratory to work on finding alternative uses for these products. From sweet potatoes, for example, came a raft of new products: flours, starches, sugar, a faux coconut, vinegar, synthetic ginger, and chocolate as well as non-foods such as stains, dyes, paints, and writing ink.

But it was the lowly peanut which made Carver famous. The peanut attracted his attention because it is easy to cultivate, it enriches the soil, and it is a ready source of protein, an especially important consideration since poor Black farmers could not afford meat. From the peanut Carver developed a host of new products: most notably milk, but also butter, meal, Worcestershire sauce, various punches, cooking oils, salad oil, milk, and medicines as well as cosmetics such as hand lotions, face creams, and powder. All together, he discovered more than 300 food, industrial, and commercial products from the peanut. Carver's research on foodstuffs derived not only from his belief that he had to find new uses for agricultural products to encourage farmers to grow them, but also because he saw many of these new products as nutritious additions to the diet of poor southerners. Similarly, he experimented with paints that could be made from Alabama clay since he knew that poor farmers could not afford commercial applications.

But inventing new products and demonstrating how to increase yields were only part of Carver's accomplishments. Intrinsic to his image of himself as a scientist - and as someone destined to assist impoverished blacks to improve their lot - was his role as a disseminator and an interpreter of scientific information. This was a role Carver assumed early on in his tenure at Tuskegee. One example of this was the Jessup wagon which grew out of the need to reach rural dwellers. Teaching modern farming practices and demonstrating new seeds to Black belt farmers proved difficult, despite the best efforts of the Agricultural Extension Station and various conferences, fairs, and the like sponsored by Tuskegee.

Out of this frustration came the idea that if farmers would not or could not come to a school, then the school should go to them. Already, agriculturalists in Europe were experimenting with movable schools. In 1904 Iowa State organized "Seed Corn Gospel Trains," which carried lecturers and demonstration materials to farmers gathered at railroad stations. That same year Washington suggested that Carver outfit a wagon as a "traveling agricultural school."19 Carver called the idea "most excellent" and funding to equip and operate such a wagon was obtained from New York banker and philanthropist Morris K. Jessup, hence the name of the wagon, and from the John F. Slater Fund.

Tuskegee's traveling school opened for business on May 24, 1906. Carver never operated the wagon, but he drafted plans for it, selected the equipment, drew charts demonstrating farm operations, and suggested lectures on self-sufficient farming, fertilization, and the best crops to grow in various soils. The wagon was so successful that within a few months it was made part of the outreach program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture with Thomas Campbell, who had been a Tuskegee student, as operator under Carver's tutelage. The Jessup wagon greatly widened Tuskegee's reach, as Campbell's travels took him farther and farther away from the Institute. Rather than lecture farmers about proper agricultural techniques, Campbell would select a typical farm in a particular region, show the owner proper procedures for increasing yields, and guarantee the owner against losses. The success of these "cooperators" in increasing production then spurred their neighbors to adopt scientific farming methods.

Carver reached an even wider audience through the bulletins he issued as director of the Agricultural Experiment Station at Tuskegee. Publishing bulletins was one of the major functions of experimental stations; the bulletins generally reported the findings of station experiments and were usually aimed at agricultural researchers, not farmers. Carver intended his bulletins to bridge that gap; as such, he reported on the results of his experiments, but he also wanted the publications to serve as manuals for farmers. Initially, Carver set a goal of issuing four bulletins a year. He averaged less than half of that, and the number diminished over time, mostly because Carver's experimental station was a one-man operation, and that one man had many other responsibilities. In addition, the station was continually starved for funding.

Washington constantly pressed Carver to issue more bulletins, but in truth the scientist was laboring against impossible odds.20 He did all the research himself and prepared the manuscripts, including writing, editing, and typing them. He had no stenographer at the beginning and never had a printing press. So, Carver had to have his bulletins printed at the school's printing office, which frequently had no money. Since most of the bulletins were provided free of charge, Carver often had to beg for money to pay production costs.

Still, between 1898 and 1943, the year of his death, Carver issued 44 bulletins, ranging from Experiments with Sweet Potatoes to How to Build up Worn Out Soils to Fertilizer Experiments in Cotton. Some were decidedly practical: How to Cook Peas and Three Delicious Meals Every Day for the Farmer are examples. Virtually all of the bulletins exhibited what Carver called his threefold approach: to supply simple cultivation information for farmers, a little science for teachers, and some recipes for housewives. Carver believed this approach spurred demand; in fact, demand for the bulletins was great, quickly exhausting the supply of two to five thousand copies that were usually printed. Success bred further problems since getting money for reprints was even harder than for the first printing.

But the widest audience Carver reached came in the forum that cemented his fame as "The Peanut Man": his appearance in 1921 before the House Ways and Means Committee as an expert witness on behalf of the peanut industry, which was seeking tariff protection. Carver's testimony did not begin well. He showed up in his usual manner: clean but rather shabbily dressed. Then he fumbled around as he laid out samples of peanut products on the table. He quickly used up his allotted 10 minutes, but his time was repeatedly extended, as he showed and described the vast number of items that could be made from peanuts. He so captivated committee members that he received a standing ovation. More importantly, he convinced the committee that peanuts should be protected, helping to secure a high protective tariff for them. As his biographer wrote, "In less than an hour Carver had won a tariff for the peanut industry and national fame for himself."21

Carver was so enamored with the potential powers of the peanut that he became convinced the legume had miraculous curative powers. Carver had been introduced to the belief that natural products could cure a variety of diseases as a child while living with Mariah Watkins in Neosho, Missouri. Linked to his belief in the wonders of natural products and herbal remedies was his conviction that massages were beneficial, a belief which stemmed from his days as masseur to the Iowa State football team.

At Tuskegee Carver treated his friends to massages with peanut oil. By the 1930s he became convinced peanut oil could ameliorate the devastating paralysis that accompanied polio. He was certain that peanut oil applied during a massage not only saturated the skin and flesh but actually entered the blood stream and helped restore life to limbs withered by the effects of polio. In 1933 the Associated Press carried a story about Carver's alleged successes with peanut oil massages and, for a time, Tuskegee began to look like Lourdes as paralyzed pilgrims flocked to the Alabama school.

It is not clear just how effective Carver's massages were in treating polio. It is true that many of those treated testified that he had helped them regain at least some use of paralyzed limbs. Certainly, his claims about peanut oil massages do suggest a bit of the charlatan, but it should be pointed out that he never took payment for his treatments and that polio was a crippling disease that each summer seemed to affect more and more people. The fear of polio did not end until the development of an effective vaccine in the 1950s.

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Teacher and Mentor

Booker T. Washington, who was frequently at odds with Carver, never wavered in his belief that Carver's "great forte is in teaching and lecturing. There are few people anywhere who have greater ability to inspire and instruct as a teacher..."22 Carver was not a great speaker. He had in fact a rather high-pitched voice. But he was a showman who frequently used dramatic examples and humor to make his points. Most importantly, his success as a teacher stemmed from his obvious enthusiasm for his subject, which was an appreciation of the wonders of nature. It did not matter whether the formal topic was chemistry, botany, or agriculture, for all of these subjects meant studying how to use nature for the benefit of man. Learning was the process of a student moving from what he already knew to the "nearest related unknown" while education was the process of "understanding relationships."23

Although Carver gave up the formal classroom after 1915, he did not ignore Tuskegee's students. Carver's contacts with students, even in the early years, were never limited to the classroom. He took seriously Tuskegee's goal of educating the total person, and he understood that since many of the first students were just a generation or two removed from slavery, they needed to be taught more than chemistry or agriculture: they needed instruction in how to survive in a competitive as well as hostile world.

Carver emphasized the teacher's responsibility to be concerned with his students both in and out of the classroom. Since he lived in a dormitory, he was accessible to all students, regardless of their field of study. Many students, particularly those who suffered most from poverty and discrimination, flocked to him; they became "his boys." He recognized that white racism often proved an impenetrable obstacle to the success of his students, but he was an optimist and a dreamer and he tried to instill in them his abiding faith in a just universe. This was partly why he taught a Sunday evening Bible class, which was well-attended during the 30 years of Carver's involvement. The class was a labor of love for Carver, an intensely religious man who viewed the Creator as good and saw evil as the result of man's inability to grasp the good. These religious beliefs informed Carver's outlook on white racism.

"Carver's boys" initially were drawn from the Tuskegee student body. But over the years, as his fame and interests widened, Carver came into contact with young men from all over the South, some of whom were white and all of whom frequently sought his advice. Many of these contacts came through speeches Carver gave to the Atlanta-based Commission in Interracial Cooperation and the Young Men's Christian Association. Both groups were committed to furthering interracial harmony, and in his speeches Carver would scan the audience for faces that seemed interested in what he was saying. It was in this way that Carver met Jim Hardwick, a descendant of slave owners. Hardwick had been captain of the Virginia Polytechnic Institute football team and was now looking for a way to be of Christian service. Hardwick became one of Carver's boys and the two had a long correspondence, with many of the letters from Carver addressed to "My Beloved Boy."

Late in his life, Carver wrote a letter to Dana Johnson, another of Carver's protégés, as was his brother Cecil, in which he tried to express how much these young men meant to him. "Not a day passes," Carver stated, "that I do not think of my boys and often wonder just what they are doing." He continued, "It is such an inspiration to me to watch the progress that you and your brother have, and are yet, making, and the future that will doubtless be yours as young aspiring American citizens who must figure into the building up of this great American commonwealth..."24 For Carver, who never married and had no children, the friendship, love, and dependence of these young men meant as much to him as his advice meant to them.

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Carver as Symbol

George Washington Carver: inventor, scientist, agriculturalist, teacher, mentor, and above all symbol. Carver was all of the above at various times; as such, he often eludes easy categorization. Certainly, he was a scientist, but not one who always used the most rigorous methods. He was very successful as a scientist, inventor, and agriculturalist, but he did not measure success by the usual methods. He said: "It is not the style of clothes one wears, neither the kind of automobiles one drives, nor the amount of money one has in the bank that counts. These mean nothing. It is simple service that measures success."25 Measured by this standard, Carver was indeed a success.

Carver's ability to develop new products, especially from the peanut, cemented his fame, and that fame spread after his House testimony and his quasi-adoption as the peanut industry's spokesman. In the 1920s a number of newspapers in the South touted his accomplishments and saw him as an example of the New South, a movement that preached a degree of interracial harmony based on economic opportunity for Black people. Carver's multifaceted role as an example of what Black people could achieve by dint of hard work as well as the use of his success by others to promote racial harmony must be remembered in any assessment of him.

Carver's stature as a symbol had become fixed by his later years. Various groups adopted him as an emblem for whatever cause they represented. It is no wonder that the country was quick to make his birthplace in Diamond Grove, Missouri, a national monument, the first such honor bestowed on an African-American.

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Research Notes and Further Reading

Research Notes

  1. Cited in Gary Kremer, ed., George Washington Carver: In His Own Words (Columbia, Missouri: The University of Missouri Press, 1987), p. 1.
  2. Cited in Gary Kremer, ed., George Washington Carver: In His Own Words (Columbia, Missouri: The University of Missouri Press, 1987), p. 3.
  3. George Washington Carver, 1897 or thereabouts, George Washington Carver Papers, Tuskegee Institute Archives, reel 1.
  4. Carver, A Brief Sketch of My Life, ibid.
  5. Linda McMurry, George Washington Carver: Scientist & Symbol (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), pp. 9-10.
  6. Carver, A Brief Sketch, Carver Papers, reel 1.
  7. McMurry, Carver, p. 18; Rackham Holt, George Washington Carver: An American Biography (Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, 1946), p. 19.
  8. Quoted in McMurry, Carver, p. 28.
  9. Carver to Booker T. Washington, April 12, 1896, Booker T. Washington Papers (online version) vol. 4; p. 159.
  10. Washington describes the school's founding and early years in his autobiographical writings, Up From Slavery and The Story of My Life and Work, both of which can be found in the online version of the Booker T. Washington Papers, vol.1.
  11. Campbell provided funds frequently in the early years and was initial president of the Board of Trustees. Washington, Up From Slavery, Washington Papers, vol. 1, p. 279.
  12. For the text of Washington's Atlanta Compromise speech, see Booker T. Washington Papers (online version) vol. 3, pp. 583-87.
  13. Linda McMurry, George Washington Carver: Scientist & Symbol (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), p. 69. This discussion of the relationship between Carver and Washington leans heavily on McMurry's analysis.
  14. Washington to Carver, February 26, 1911, Washington Papers, vol. 10, p. 595.
  15. Ibid., p. 594.
  16. Linda McMurry, George Washington Carver: Scientist & Symbol (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), p. 306.
  17. Gary Kremer, ed., George Washington Carver: In His Own Words (Columbia, Missouri: The University of Missouri Press, 1987), pp. 159, 161.
  18. George Washington Carver, How to Build Up Worn Out Soils, Tuskegee Experiment Station, Bulletin Six (Tuskegee, 1905), p. 4.
  19. McMurry, Carver, pp. 125-27.
  20. Ibid, p.78. Washington worried that the Tuskegee Agricultural Station would be unfavorably compared with other stations, particularly the one at Auburn University. The station at Auburn was more productive, but the comparison was not fair. By 1913 the Auburn station had thirteen employees and the Alabama State Legislature, which controlled the purse strings of the stations, awarded the lion's share of funds to Auburn. Ibid. Note that the funds to operate the Agricultural Stations came from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but the USDA gave the money in a block to state legislatures which in turn allocated funds to stations within a state. Given the racial politics of the early 20th century, it was no surprise that most of the money went to Auburn University, not the Tuskegee Institute.
  21. McMurry, Carver, p. 174.
  22. Washington to Carver, February 26, 1911, Booker T. Washington Papers (online version), vol. 10, p. 594.
  23. Linda McMurry, George Washington Carver: Scientist & Symbol (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), p. 97
  24. Carver to Dana Johnson, February 14, 1942, in Gary Kremer, ed., George Washington Carver: In His Own Words (Columbia, Missouri: The University of Missouri Press, 1987), p. 191.
  25. Quoted in Gary Kremer, ed., George Washington Carver: In His Own Words (Columbia, Missouri: The University of Missouri Press, 1987), p. 17.

Further Reading

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Landmark Designation and Acknowledgments

Landmark Designation

The American Chemical Society dedicated the agricultural chemistry of George Washington Carver a National Historic Chemical Landmark on January 27, 2005. The plaque commemorating the event reads:

George Washington Carver achieved international fame as a scientist and innovator who applied novel chemical insights to agriculture. Born a slave, Carver joined the faculty of Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) in 1896 where he developed new products from peanuts, sweet potatoes, and other crops and conducted experiments in crop rotation and the restoration of soil fertility. Through his research, Carver urged southern farmers to rotate cotton with soil-enhancing crops such as soybeans and peanuts. To improve the lot of poor southern farmers, Carver produced a series of free, easily understood bulletins that included information on crops and cultivation techniques.


Adapted for the internet from “George Washington Carver: Chemist, Teacher, Symbol,” produced by the National Historic Chemical Landmarks program of the American Chemical Society in 2005.

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Cite this Page

ACS Style

American Chemical Society National Historic Chemical Landmarks. George Washington Carver: Chemist, Teacher, Symbol. (accessed Month Day, Year).

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Portrait of George Washington Carver, 1906.
Courtesy Library of Congress.
No individual has any right to come into the world and go out of it without leaving behind him distinct and legitimate reasons for having passed through it."
—George Washington Carver, May 25,