Stories From Our Past, Black History Month – George Washington Carver

By February 23, 2022 Black History Month

Dr. C. Allen Alexander, 1937 | NPS

George Washington Carver, “the Peanut Man,” is not just a Proud Family movie villain. In fact, he was an agricultural scientist, artist, and herbalist.

George was born in 1864 as a slave on Moses’s Carver farm. His father died in an accident, and his mother and sister were kidnapped along with him by slave raiders while he was still in infancy. Only George was found and returned to the Carvers’ land in Missouri.

National Academy of Sciences | AAHP

Moses Carver and his wife, Susan, kept George and his brother James. Susan taught George how to read, write, cook, garden, and concoct simple herbal medicines. He took a special interest in herbs and soon became colloquially referred to as the “plant doctor.”

By the time he was 11, George left the Carver farm and decided to attend an all-black school nearby. He was fostered by an African American couple, the Watkins, who gave him a roof over his head in exchange for help with household chores. Mariah Watkins imparted her knowledge of medicinal herbs onto George and feed his curiosity.

From there George traveled throughout the Midwest educating himself however he could. Eventually, he landed at the University of Iowa, and studied botany. He was the first African American at the university. He continued on and got a Master’s degree in Agriculture, and became a professor at Tuskegee Institute under Booker T. Washington.

Out of all his research, experimentation, and study, his idea of crop rotation proved to be most valuable.

George wanted to help poor farmers, and he found that nitrogen-fixing legumes like peanuts, soybeans and sweet potatoes helped to restore soil. While the high yields were a major benefit, farmers were stuck with a surplus of peanuts.

To put those seeds to use, he developed more than 300 culinary, industrial, and commercial products from peanuts. While the extensive list includes Worcestershire sauce, cooking oils, and cosmetics – unfortunately, Carver did not invent the classic lunch snack, peanut butter.