Today’s GLBT History Month icon is George Washington Carver, 1864 – 1943, a botanist and agricultural scientist who faced overt racism and many social challenges but rose above them to triumph in his career.
From Equality Forum:
George Washington Carver was a groundbreaking agricultural scientist, known for discovering innovative uses for peanuts, sweet potatoes and clay.
A black man born during the Civil War, Carver overcame racism to establish himself as a preeminent scientist and renowned academic.
Carver was born a slave in southwest Missouri. As an infant, he was kidnapped by slave raiders, and then abandoned when they discovered he suffered from whooping cough. His mother’s former owners, Moses and Susan Carver, adopted and raised him.
At the age of 13, Carver left home to attend a school for African-Americans. In 1890, he matriculated to Simpson College in Iowa, where he was the only black student. In 1891, he transferred to Iowa State College to focus on his passion for agriculture.
After graduating, he served as the only black member of the Iowa State faculty. Carver was invited to head the agriculture department at the Tuskegee Institute, a university for black students founded by Booker T. Washington.
As a professor, Carver encouraged students to think creatively and independently. He emphasized selfsufficiency and resilience, and he pursued broad interests, including painting and religion.
Throughout his life, he maintained a positive approach. Even in the face of overt racism, Carver said, “I can’t do my work if my heart is bitter.”
Carver is best known for his advances in the agricultural field. He devised and taught impoverished farmers uses for nutritious, commonly grown crops. He was the first scientist to discover multiple uses for peanuts, developing products as diverse as flour, ink and face cream.
He experimented with developing rubber from the sweet potato. Carver’s discoveries are seen as the basis for many products, including biofuels and fruitbased cleaning products.
In 1916, Carver was offered membership in the Royal Society of London. In 1923, he was awarded a Spingarn Medal by the NAACP. Simpson College awarded him an honorary degree in 1932.
Carver is said to have enjoyed an intimate relationship with his male assistant Austin W. Curtis, Jr., a Cornell graduate in chemistry who taught at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College. This companionship, as it was perceived at the time, helped Carver to continue working in his later years.
In 1943, Rackham Holt described the relationship between the two men: “At last someone had been welcomed not merely into Dr. Carver’s laboratory, but also into his heart. He believed that there was something providential in the coming of this young man, so intensely serious about his work and extremely competent at it, who was at the same time a genial companion; he was proud of him and loved and depended on him as his own son . . . . And the affection was returned in full measure. Mr. Curtis accompanied him everywhere, seeing to his comfort, shielding him from intrusion, and acting as his official mouthpiece.”
Holt also noted that Carver “would tuck his hand into the arm of ‘my dear boy’” when the two set off to inspect experiments.
In likening the rapport between them to that of a father and son, Holt was echoing Carver’s own, possibly guarded, words.
Deeply religious, Carver believed that his intellect and the discoveries he made were all gifts from God. His religious beliefs put him at odds with some in the scientific community who felt that his perceived irrational faith could detract from his considerable achievements.
As part of his legacy, Carver left behind the Carver Research Foundation at Tuskegee, which he funded with his life savings in 1940 so that the research center could continue his work. In addition to this, Carver’s name appears frequently in academic circles, with several institutions like the Carver Hall of Iowa State University and the Carver Science Building at Simpson College bearing his name.
Perhaps most widely known, however, is the George Washington Carver National Monument which incorporates several buildings from Carver’s former estate, several exhibits and assorted nature trails.
Carver’s epitaph reads, “He could have added fortune to fame, but caring for neither, he found happiness and honor in being helpful to the world.”
- “Black Leonardo.” Time. 24 November 1991.
- “Change Without Revolution .” Time. 5 January 1948.
- “Dr. Carver Is Dead; Negro Scientist.” The New York Times. 6 January 1943.
- Fishbein, Toby. “George Washington Carver.” e-Library@Iowa State University. 1 June 2010.
- “George Washington Carver.” The State Historical Society of Missouri. 1 June 2010.
- “George Washington Carver.” The Field Museum. 24 May 2010.
- “Science: Peanut Man.” Time. 14 June 1937.
For a more detailed overview of George Washington Carver’s life, please click here.
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