How George Washington Carver’s agricultural innovations transformed America’s southern economy in the early 20th century

BY Preta Peace Namasaba February 27, 2024 11:41 AM EDT
George Washington Carver. Photo credit: Science History Institute

It is impossible to talk about the development of the American South, without mentioning the contributions made by Black labor and creativity, sometimes at virtually no cost to the people who put Black people to task. But when slavery ended, combined with soil erosion and exhaustion, it diminished the availability of cotton land and signified trouble for the South during the early 20th century. Largely focusing on agriculture meant that southerners lagged behind their northern compatriots in income and food alternatives amid bad harvests. In this era, what George Washington Carver offered to a populace in troubled times cannot be overemphasized.

Before Carver was an academic, scientist and pioneer, he was a little boy in dire times who loved interacting with plant life.

Born in a log cabin on a farm in Missouri during the 1840s, Carver never knew his parents. As a six-week-old baby, he was kidnapped alongside his mother by a gang of night riders and carried into Kansas. Their slave master, a Mr. Carver, sent out a rescuing party which recovered the infant Carver in exchange for a racehorse valued at $300. He never got to know what became of his mother and later heard that his father was accidentally killed by an ox team while hauling wood. Frail, sickly, and suffering from a severe whooping cough, it was unlikely that the baby of six weeks would reach adulthood.

Nonetheless, he was adopted by the Carver family. He was an inquisitive child, enchanted by plants and constantly trying to discover their uses. In pursuit of education, he left the Carver home to travel when he was around 11 to travel to a school for Black children. With no one in the world, Carver found comfort in botany, learning about herbal medicine, natural pesticides, and natural fertilizers that yielded plentiful crops from his caretaker. He would use his knowledge and go and nurse dying crops and house plants back to health. The teenage Carver came to be known as the “plant doctor”.

To support himself, he moved from place to place laundering, cooking, and doing other odd jobs. He briefly worked as a stenographer and tried crop cultivation before enrolling at Simpson College in Iowa to study art in 1890. His deepest interest however lay with botany and he transferred to the Iowa Agricultural College at Ames where he earned his bachelor’s degree in 1894. He was the first Black student at the institution now known as Iowa State. Carver worked as an assistant botanist on the experiment station staff and obtained a master’s in agriculture two years later.

“Of course 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 my life for 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,” Carver would later say about his position at Tuskegee Institute.

Alabama’s legislation to support an agricultural school and experiment station for African-Americans at Tuskegee Institute in 1897 came at the right time for Carver. He was asked to head the new program by the school’s principal, Booker T. Washington. Unfortunately, agricultural training wasn’t popular with the students as many viewed schooling as a means of escaping the farm. When the agriculture department graduated only two students in 1910, Carver was removed from the position and made head of a new Department of Research. His administrative skills were still lackluster but his abilities in teaching and original research proved to be exceptional.

The Tuskegee Experiment Station served as Carver’s testing ground for crop varieties and fertilizers. He analyzed soil, feed, well water, and other materials submitted from the school and its vicinity in the laboratory. As the rural poor around Tuskegee could hardly afford commercial feed and fertilizer, Carver demonstrated the value of substitutes such as acorns for feeding hogs and swamp muck for enriching croplands. The station was mainly staffed by African Americans and addressed fundamental needs in Alabama’s black belt. To reach a wider audience, Carver broadcast station bulletins, leaflets, and circulars advising farmers on which crops to plant. His advice had an unprecedented impact on the lives of rural African American farmers but could hardly compare to the nationwide prominence he would attain.

Carver was at the forefront of the modern organic movement in the Southern agricultural system. Overproduction of a single crop had left many fields exhausted and barren, cotton production was on the decline in the South, and farmers weren’t reaping enough food to survive. Carver found that the industrialization of cotton had contaminated the soil and developed a way to organically transform Alabama’s failing soil.

He encouraged farmers to restore nitrogen to their soils by practicing systematic crop rotation, alternating cotton crops with nitrogen-rich crops that would let the soil get back to its natural state. Not only could crops such as sweet potatoes and legumes like peanuts, soybeans and cowpeas restore nitrogen to the soil, but they would also produce surplus food for farmers. The strategy was highly successful and allowed farmers to grow cotton and other cash crops.

Although the nitrogen-rich crops thrived in southern climates and provided farmers with food, there was little demand for them. Carver consequently founded an industrial research laboratory focused on researching and experimenting with new uses for peanuts, sweet potatoes, soybeans, pecans, and other crops. Alongside his assistants, he did original research,  promoted applications and recipes collected from others and distributed this information as agricultural bulletins.

Carver’s inventions include hundreds of products ranging from food and household to fuel. He developed more than 300 products from peanuts such as milk, plastics, paints, dyes, cosmetics, medicinal oils, soap, ink, and wood stains, another 118 from sweet potatoes including molasses, postage stamp glue, flour, vinegar, and synthetic rubber, among others and even a type of gasoline.

His contribution to the transformation of southern agriculture made him one of the most well-known African-Americans of the 20th century. He gave testimony before Congress in 1921 to support the passage of a tariff on imported peanuts. Carver met with three American presidents, namely, Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge and Franklin Roosevelt, and studied with the Crown Prince of Sweden for three weeks even as his advice was highly sought after by business leaders. In 1938, he founded the George Washington Carver Foundation at Tuskegee to continue agricultural research and created a museum of his work to celebrate his legacy.

On January 5, 1943, Carver died due to complications resulting from a severe fall down a flight of stairs. President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated $30,000 for the George Washington Carver National Monument at the site of the plantation where Carver lived as a child, the first national monument dedicated to an African American. He has appeared on several U.S. commemorative postal stamps, numerous schools bear his name, and two United States military vessels are named after him.

Carver’s legacy transcends his achievements in the South and early 20th century. While his professional journey personifies the power of ingenuity, his life story is an inspiration for anyone who dreams of overcoming unfortunate circumstances.