The Legacy of George Washington Carver, Tuskegee Educator, Innovator and Renaissance Man

EDITORIAL NOTE: Each year February is Black History Month, but this year we will also mark the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. With this in mind we decided to do a series celebrating the important and innovative contributions of African-Americans. Earlier this month Eric Guttag wrote The Black Edison: Granville T. Woods. What is below is part 2 of his article on George Washington Carver. To read part 1 visit God’s Scientist: George Washington Carver. Later this month we also will take a look at recent innovations coming out of historically black colleges and universities. For more on this topic please visit black inventors on


George Washington Carver circa 1910.

Carver received a fair degree of recognition at Iowa State College as the only African-American with advanced training in agricultural science.  He also enjoyed a fairly comfortable income considering his very humble upbringing.  By being the only African-American with advanced training in agricultural science, many other universities also wanted Carver as a professor in that science.

Then one day in 1896 came a letter from Booker T. Washington, President of the fledgling Tuskegee Institute (its full name then was “Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute”).  Booker T. Washington was a well-known and influential African-American educator, later to visit the White House at the invitation of then President Theodore Roosevelt.  Like Carver, Booker T. Washington had been born into slavery and felt that African-Americans must be educated if they were to achieve economic, as well as racial equality in American society.

Here is what Booker T. Washington told Carver in that 1896 letter:

“Tuskegee Institute seeks to provide education – a means for survival to those who attend.  Our students are poor, often starving.

They travel miles of torn roads, across years of poverty.  We teach them to read and write, but words cannot fill stomachs.  They need to learn how to plant and harvest crops.

I cannot offer you money, position or fame.  The first two you have.  The last, from the place you now occupy, you will no doubt achieve.  These things I now ask you to give up.  I offer you in their place – work – hard, hard work – the challenge of bringing people from degradation, poverty and waste to full manhood.”

Wow!  How would you reply to such a letter?  Conventional wisdom would have said “thanks, but no thanks.”  But Carver was not a conventional man.  So here is his unconventional reply, one that truly reflects the character and faith of this unconventional man of God and science:

“My Dear Sir,

I am just in receipt of yours of the 13th, and hasten to reply.  I am looking forward to a very busy, pleasant and profitable time at your college and shall be glad to cooperate with you in doing all I can through Christ who strengthened me to better the condition of our people.

Some months ago I read your stirring address delivered at Chicago and I said amen to all you said, furthermore you have the correct solution to the ‘race problem.’

Providence permitting, I will be there in Nov[ember].  God bless you and your work.”

So Carver gave up a certain degree of “fame and fortune” he had enjoyed at Iowa State College and moved in 1896 to the uncertain world of Tuskegee Institute to accept what had already been described by President Booker T. Washington’s letter as a potential “Mission Impossible” task, and to become a professor of agricultural science, as well as the Director of Agriculture at Tuskegee.  Thus began what was to be a bountiful 47 year career in education and research at Tuskegee Institute.

In the photo below, you can see Carver in the middle of the front row with his fellow professors at Tuskegee.

In later commenting on his role as an educator at Tuskegee, Carver said the following:

“In my work I meet many young people who are seeking truth.  God has given me some knowledge.  When they let me, I try to pass it on to my boys.”

When Carver arrived at Tuskegee in 1896, he soon realized what President Booker T. Washington had said about the “hard work” to come was absolutely correct.  In particular, when Carver came to Tuskegee there was no laboratory or any equipment for it.

Carver had to build that laboratory literally from scratch and with no money to do so.  He also found that agricultural science was viewed as a very unpopular subject to take at Tuskegee.  In fact, in the beginning, Carver had only 13 students in his class on agricultural science.  But about a year later, by May of 1897, he had already doubled that number of students in his class.  Carver was now on his way to becoming one of the greatest educators, as well as greatest researchers, in agricultural science.


A Soul for Soil

As noted earlier, Carver’s fondness for knowing and understanding the soil began in his youth, and that fondness for, as well as knowledge of, the soil was to pay huge dividends at Tuskegee.  At that time, Southern farmers, and especially African-American farmers in Alabama planted primarily cotton as their cash crop.  The trouble was that cotton farming robbed and depleted the soil of its nutrients, so much so that the average yield of cotton from a planted field was dwindling and at an alarming rate.  Carver realized that enrichment of this nutrient poor soil was crucial, and that Southern farmers must plant more than just cotton.  So Carver pushed the idea of crop rotation, planting a variety of crops that included soybeans, cowpeas, sweet potatoes, and most importantly peanuts, to enrich the soil.  He also came up with less expensive ways to fertilize the soil that included adding manure and compost.  Slowly, but surely, Carver broke Southern farmers, and especially African-American farmers, of their addiction to planting only cotton in their fields.


Carver’s Mobile Classroom

One of the problems faced by Carver in educating farmers about agricultural science was that many of them could not come to Tuskegee.  So Carver turned his knowledge of agricultural science into a mobile classroom so he could take that knowledge out to the farmer that needed it.  Thus was born in 1906 the Jesup Wagon (shown above), named after Morris K. Jesup who funded this mobile agricultural classroom on wheels.  With this mobile classroom, Carver was able to reach out to many more farmers to help them with vital agricultural knowledge for improving their lives, especially in terms of crop rotation to end their continued dependence on cotton.

Besides preventing depletion of the soil, getting Alabama farmers to end their dependence on cotton became important for another reason:  cotton’s version of the locust known as the boll weevil was beginning to invade Alabama and to destroy the cotton crop planted there.  When the larvae of the boll weevil hatch, they literally devour the valuable fluffy white or boll part of the cotton plant.  Besides moving the Alabama farmers to other crops such as soybeans, cowpeas, sweet potatoes, and peanuts that the boll weevil larvae had no taste for, Carver developed an improved and more boll weevil resistant cotton plant known as the Carver Hybrid to combat this pesky insect.


A Passion for Peanuts

This experience in helping Southern farmers improve the soil in their fields soon led to what was to become a passion for Carver:  peanuts.  While peanuts were very useful in enriching the soil with nutrients, a new problem then arose:  what to do with this plentiful crop of peanuts?  And having now encouraged farmers to plant more peanuts to enrich the soil, Carver felt it was his obligation to find more uses for what was now becoming an overabundant commodity.  So in 1903, Carver began working in earnest on peanut science, and especially on the potential uses of peanuts.

This research by Carver on peanuts made him the innovator of what eventually became a highly marketable and profitable industry now worth well in excess of $500 million.  Having worked with Jiff peanut butter when I was a patent attorney at Procter & Gamble, I also became very familiar with the science of peanuts.  Peanuts are a very nutritious food having not only significant protein content, but also a very valuable and highly nutritious oil.  Peanut oil is very rich in an important fatty acid called oleic acid which is extremely valuable for improving heart health by decreasing “bad” LDL cholesterol, and possibly elevating the level of “good” HDL cholesterol.  Only olive oil, canola oil, and certain high oleic acid varieties of sunflower oil have higher levels of oleic acid.

But Carver’s research was to take peanuts to a whole new level beyond just its nutritious properties as a food, and even as a beverage.  In all, Carver developed over 325 different products using peanuts.  Some of these uses of peanuts may astound you:  cosmetics such as facial creams and lotions, hand lotions, rubbing oil, peanut oil shampoo, a hair cream known as Carvoline, talcum powder, and soap; dyes, paints and stains such as leather stains, wood stains, shoe and leather blackening, cloth dyes, and non-toxic pigments that could be used in crayons.

In William J. Federer’s book (“George Washington Carver:  His Life and Faith in His Own Words”) which provides a biographical account about Carver’s life using his own words, there is an amusing anecdote about him speaking to a YMCA group in 1921 in Blue Ridge, North Carolina, and telling the following story about how he developed all these hundreds of products made from peanuts:

 Years ago I went into my laboratory and said, “Dear Mr. Creator, please tell me what the universe was made for?”

The Great Creator answered, “You want to know too much for that little mind of yours.  Ask for something more your size, little man.”

Then I asked, “Please, Mr. Creator, tell me what man is made for.”

Again the Great Creator replied, “You are still asking too much.  Cut down on the extent and improve the intent.”

So then I asked, “Please Mr. Creator, will you tell me why the peanut was made?”

“That’s better, but even then it’s infinite.  What do you want to know about the peanut?”

“Mr. Creator, can I make milk out of the peanut?”

“What kind of milk do you want?  Good Jersey milk or just plain boarding house milk?

“Good Jersey milk.”

And then the Great Creator taught me to take the peanut apart and put it together again.  And out of that process have come forth all these products.

Carver even developed medicines from peanuts.

This photo of Carver meeting President Franklin Delano Roosevelt is no accident.  As many of you may know, FDR contracted polio as an adult and was essentially paralyzed from the waist down as a result.  In 1933, Carver thought that peanut oil, when massaged into patients having polio, could have beneficial healing effects.  In fact, one polio-afflicted boy was even able to walk again after Carver massaged his legs with peanut oil.  So Carver sent  FDR a sample of this peanut oil remedy in 1933 which FDR felt alleviated some of his symptoms of polio.  Now other researchers have found that it was the massages, not the peanut oil itself, which provided the benefits in overcoming the effects of polio, but it nonetheless shows the ingenuity and creativity of Carver in trying to find other uses for peanuts, even in the world of pharmaceuticals.


Recognition of Carver

As Carver performed his “peanut magic” in the laboratory at Tuskegee, recognition of his accomplishments were to follow.  In 1916, he joined the Advisory Board of the National Agricultural Society.  In that same year, he was elected a Fellow to the Royal Society of Arts, as noted earlier.  In 1920, Carver was invited to be a guest speaker for the United Peanut Association of America.  But this invitation came at a price.  Because Carver was black, he was forced to reach the meeting room for that speech by taking the freight elevator, as the passenger elevator was reserved for “whites only.”  Nonetheless, Carver persevered through this first-hand experience with racial discrimination, and “dazzled the audience with his speech.”  In 1928, Carver was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Science Degree from Simpson College, the very place where he started his college education.


Final Years at Tuskegee

In his final years, Carver continued to receive accolades in recognition of his achievements, and especially for his impact as a researcher and educator at Tuskegee.  In 1935, Carver was appointed a Collaborator, Mycology and Plant Disease Survey, with the Bureau of Plant Industry at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.  In 1937, a bronze statue of Carver was unveiled at Tuskegee to honor him for 40 years of dedicated service at the Institute.  In 1939, he received the Roosevelt Medal for Outstanding Contribution to Southern Agriculture.  But by 1938, Carver became severely ill, so much so that he didn’t teach or work much anymore in his lab at Tuskegee, but nonetheless remained busy otherwise, continuing to give speeches into the early 1940’s.

Sadly, on January 5, 1943, Carver finally died at his beloved Tuskegee Institute a few weeks after suffering a bad fall.  Because of his frugality, Carver had saved around $60,000, all of which was donated during his last years and at his death to the Carver Museum and the George Washington Carver Foundation.  On his grave, it was written:  “He could have added fortune to fame, but caring for neither, he found happiness and honor in being helpful to the world.”  What an appropriate epitaph to this amazing man of God and science.


Carver’s Legacy

So now we come to what is George Washington Carver’s legacy?  My initial response is “Oh My God, where do I begin?” Without utterly trivializing the significant and numerous accomplishments of this man of God and science I will do my best to explain the legacy this great man left.

George Washington Carver was certainly a “renaissance man” like Leonardo da Vinci, and I don’t use that term “renaissance man” lightly.  The parallels between da Vinci and Carver are striking.  Not only was Carver a man of science and God, but he was also a gifted painter, musician, and educator.  In fact, I discovered that Time magazine in a 1941 issue referred to Carver as the “Black Leonardo,” so I’m not the only one who saw the parallels between Carver and da Vinci.

As I mentioned in my first article on Granville Woods, “The Black Edison,” there is also really no other parallel to George Washington Carver among black innovators.  Through his research on peanuts, as well developing many uses and products from them, Carver virtually created an over half billion dollar industry from scratch.  That’s no small accomplishment for a man who came from slavery and poverty.

Carver also became known for his often pithy “pearls of wisdom,” what I call “George’s Proverbs.”  Here are a few of George’s Proverbs that really hit home with me:

  •  “Ninety-nine percent of the failures come from people who have a habit of making excuses.”  Ouch, does that one hit close to home!
  • “How far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving and tolerant of the weak and strong.  Because someday in your life you will have been all of these.”
  • “Without genuine love of humanity, it is impossible to accomplish much in the question of races.”
  • “Education is the key to unlock the golden door of freedom to our people.”
  • “Since new developments are the products of a creative mind, we must therefore stimulate and encourage that type of mind in every way possible.”
  • “I am not a finisher.  I am a blazer of trails.  Others must take up the various trails of truth and carry them on.”
  • “When you can do the common things in life in an uncommon way, you will command the attention of the world.”

How very, very true.

So in end, George Washington Carver epitomizes the motto of my Buckeye State:  “With God, All Things Are Possible.”  It’s possible to rise to great stature from very humble beginnings.  It’s possible to create from the simple peanut a variety of products, as well as an industry, that benefits not only the soil, but also satisfies human hunger, as well as other human needs.  It’s possible to educate and uplift your fellow man, no matter where they come from, and no matter how little you have to start with.  And most significantly, it is possible to combine science and faith in a potent synergy that’s truly more than the sum of its parts.

*© Eric W. Guttag 2013, 2014  (Based on a presentation made in February 2013 at the West Chester Library, West Chester, Ohio.)


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