George Washington Carver (1864-1943) was an African-American agronomist who made contributions to scientific farming in the Southern United States. He provided agricultural extension studies to farmers thereby enabling them to apply scientific farming methods to their farming practices hence improving their crop yields. For example, planting cotton over and over on the same soil depletes the soil’s nutrients whereas rotating different crops (say, peanuts) and cotton on the soil improved the quality of the soil. Carver taught farmers to rotate their crops on the same soil.
Many claims were made regarding Carver’s findings and inventions, for example, on how peanuts could be transformed into many products (and how other crops could also be made into many products). These claims were rather exaggerated. For example, it was not Carver who discovered how to transform peanuts into peanut butter and peanut mild (a source of protein).
Carver’s most important contribution is not so much his findings in his scientific agriculture but the fact that a black man could be a scientist. At the time he lived (he was born before slavery ended) black men were perceived as unintelligent and his success did a lot to dispel that notion. Then folk did not even believe that a black man could study science and there he was, a black man who studied Botany and, apparently, knew a lot about it and helped farmers understand the diseases that affect their cash crops and what to do to prevent them.
Carver naturally dealt mostly with black farmers for at the time he lived there was little or not contact between white and black folk (except as masters and servants).
He taught Botany at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, a black college, for over forty seven years and helped Booker T Washington carry out his unique view that Negroes should not compete with white men in the pure sciences but, instead, reconcile themselves to performing minor technical jobs that society has need for and that did not arouse the envy of white folk. Washington wanted blacks to study what we now call vocational, trade school type of subjects.
W.E.B Dubois, on the other hand, wanted black folk to have equal access to a broad range of studies, including intellectual subjects, knowledge of which could enable them to challenge the white man, what Washington feared to see happen. Washington felt that if black folk were educated in the liberal and science arts, understand social reality and challenged white men for power and control of America that white men would kill them. Apparently, desiring to live at all costs, a coward, Washington was not about to confront those he believed could kill him. The Negro slave survived but lived as a slave and that was fine with Booker T. Washington; don’t rock the boat, just survive.
Carver made improvements to many crops and later in life was perceived as an expert on farming. He was even called upon by Congress to testify in the 1920s (on whether Congress should raise tariff on imported peanuts from China), an unheard of thing. Indeed, many Southern Congressmen would not allow him to do testify, for they were not used to seeing a black man as an expert; he did testify, anyway, and thus gained reputation as an expert and apparently that made his race very proud of him
Carver made friends with powerful white men, such as Henry Ford. Such fraternization with the white elite in it was an achievement in an age when blacks were considered only fit for janitorial work.
Carver was a religious man and attributed his work to God. Time Magazine went out of its way to ridicule him, for, to it, science and religion do not go hand in hand. Was he a true scientist if he believed in God, or was he a fake, Time magazine seemed to be asking? The credibility of a black man must always be questioned.
Carver’s achievements were exaggerated but his mere presence in the study of plants, Botany, at a time black folk were not considered even intelligent enough to attend universities, were an achievement of sorts.
Linda McMurry. George Washington carver: Scientist and Symbol. (1982)