George Washington Carver and peanut farming

by Stefano Mancuso

George Washington Carver was born around 1864, in the midst of the American Civil War, in a poor cabin on a farm in the Southern United States. His birthdate is unknown. He said that he wished he knew the exact date of his birth but at that time nobody bothered to record the data of a child born of slave parents, and his case was no exception. Being a slave in the Southern states in 1864 meant that you literally didn’t own anything. Not even a name. George Washington Carver was, to be more exact, George Washington of Moses Carver, a quite wealthy Missouri farmer who owned George’s mother.
The adventurous existence of Carver, unfortunate from the beginning, being born a slave on a farm in the Deep South of the United States, seemed to be doomed to rapidly get worse when, aged six weeks, he, his mother and one of his sisters were kidnapped by a group of raiders who indiscriminately stole cattle and slaves, and sold in Arkansas. Fortunately, Moses Carver was a caring master, and above all he couldn’t stand that someone took away what belonged to him. He therefore started searching for the raiders, found them after a few weeks and, after a quick bargaining, George was set free in exchange for a racehorse worth 300 dollars; nothing more is known of his mother and sister.
When your life begins in such a turbulent way, as did George Washington Carver’s, and, in spite of everything, you not only survive but also maintain your thirst for knowledge and a general trust in others, it means you are made of special stuff. And that this black son of America was made of first rate stuff was a fact that George Carver continued to demonstrate from the first to the last day of his long and glorious life.
For about ten years after his emancipation, George stayed on Moses Carver’s farm and, being in close contact with nature, he developed the strong interest in plants he would maintain for the rest of his life. Later, he would remember:  

Day after day I spent in the woods alone in order to collect my floral beauties and put them in my little garden… Strange to say all sorts of vegetation succeeded to thrive under my touch until I was styled the plant doctor, and plants from all over the country would be brought to me for treatment.

Painting and music were his other two interests during those days of “an inordinate desire for knowledge”.
George wished to learn; with very little help he learned to read and master both language and grammar. But he was not satisfied with these unsystematic studies, he felt he needed a more regular education.
He decided therefore to attend the small rural school about 15 kilometers from the farm, in the nearby city of Neosho, without neither obstacle nor financial help from the Carvers. When he was little more than ten years old, and with no money at all, George started his long and hard journey to a new life. Crossing fields, climbing hills, leaping over hedges and fences, he finally reached Neosho, an unknown city, on a late evening in 1875. Alone and far away from the farm for the first time, young George had to overcome obstacles and difficulties of all kinds. First, he was completely broke. Furthermore, as he himself would later remember, he didn’t have a single cent, didn’t know anyone and didn’t have a place to spend the night. In this precarious situation, George chose an old barn as his new home and earned a living doing odd jobs that guaranteed his survival. In difficult conditions, homeless, alone and subject to very tiring work, the boy managed to do well at the small school in Neosho, which, from what he said, was probably not very good: the teacher was not qualified; the school building was a simple wooden cabin, underventilated during summer and terribly cold during winter; the desk chairs were so tall that the students’ feet never touched the ground, and there were no back rests to lean on; the entire educational system was unheard of in Neosho. He said that every incovenient that one could possibly imagine, was present in that school.
And yet, that roughly built small school and an incompetent teacher were enough to ignite the boy’s imagination. It is there, indeed, that George W. Carver, as he would tell years later, understood that his greatest desire was to become a “plant expert”.
Within one year, he learned all that the small school in Neosho had to offer, then he left again and moved from one place to another all over the South, doing a thousand jobs and completing his secondary studies in Fort Scott. Afterwards, he started to make plans to be admitted to university.
In 1890, it was not easy for a black man to be admitted to university. To be precise, it was something that had never happened in a country like the United States, that for many decades on would practice segregation and racial discrimination. We should not forget that it was 1890. It wasn’t until 65 years later that the Supreme Court of the United States would sentence that universities could not refuse admission to people because of the colour of their skin.
But the fact that a black man had never attended university in his country was not something that scared George too much. Having heard about a school in Iowa that seemed to be right for him, he sent his application by mail. One week later he received confirmation that he was accepted. Happy at how unexpectedly easy the admission procedure had been, he immediately rushed to Iowa, spending all his savings for the trip. Unfortunately, bad news were waiting for him: the college was sorry for the mistake. The detail of his skin colour, although George had cautiously specified it in his application, had gone unnoticed by an inattentive employee who was perhaps unprepared for such an event; authorities were really sorry, but black Carver could not attend classes in that university.
George Carver was not discouraged, it would have taken a lot more. Furthermore, he had imagined it wouldn’t be easy. In 1890, the Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa, finally accepted him even though he was black. A final barrier separated him from his lifelong dream: he had to find the money to pay for college. He adapted himself to every job: carpet cleaner, laundryman, stable worker, first cook in a hotel, and in the short space of a year he managed to save the money he needed to pay for the admission fee.
At that time his financial condition was such that, as he would later recall, once he had paid for the college application, he had exactly 10 cents left, which he invested in five cents of cornmeal and five cents of lard. This menu allowed him to live for a whole week.
The Simpson College in Indianola, nevertheless, specialized in teaching art; science was not much taught, and George wanted to study plants more than anything else. He did not lose heart and, after countless attempts, he moved to the Iowa State College in Ames where he finally graduated (the first black person who has ever obtained a degree in the United States) in agriculture in 1894, getting also a master’s degree two years later. At the Iowa State College, Carver started working as a botanical assistant (again, he was the first black person to do that) under the protective wing of Professor James Wilson, who later became Minister of Agriculture under Presidents McKinley, Roosevelt and Taft. So, when in 1897 the state of Alabama passed a law to promote an agricultural school and experimental station for the black at the Tuskegee Institute, George Washington Carver was ready. When the dean of Tuskegee sent him a letter to invite him to join the teaching staff of the agricultural school and run the program, Carver proudly replied:

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 myself 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 stayed in Tuskegee for the next 47 years, until he died in 1943. During that time, he devoted himself to countless activities aimed at granting an education to former slaves, who had mostly become poor Southern farmers after beeing freed. He invented a movable school with which he or other teachers from Tuskegee, using a horse-drawn wagon, stopped on farms to teach both black and white farmers the innovations they should use and the errors they should avoid while cultivating their land.
Among these errors, Carver believed that cotton monoculture was the most dangerous (well ahead of his times, if we consider the problems of the current prevailing use of monocultures). The land was depleted, crops diminished and the consequence that Carver cared about most was that farmers grew poorer and poorer. He developed and started to advertise his own rotation system, that made use of peanuts, to be planted alternately with cotton. His idea became so popular that at some point he seemed to have even become a victim of his own success. As a matter of fact, following Carver’s directions, farmers began to alternate cotton and peanuts and were amazed by the enormous production they managed to obtain. Soon, however, although most peanuts were used to feed the livestock, huge surpluses piled up and rotted inside the warehouses.
Carver therefore began to devise alternative uses for peanuts which, it should be remembered, were not yet used for human consumption at that time. It took little to Carver’s genius to invent over 300 possible uses of these surpluses. Among these, just to mention some of them which are indicative of Carver’s exceptional creativity: the use of peanut derivatives for the production of adhesives, hair wax, bleach, chili sauce, fuel bricks (a biofuel, as we would call it today), ink, instant coffee, cosmetic face cream, shampoo, soap, linoleum, mayonnaise, metal cleaning products, paper, plastic, shaving cream, shoe polish, synthetic rubber, materials for road surfacing, talc and stain removers for wood, in addition to food uses such as peanut butter, peanut milk, peanut cheese and peanut oil that would change Americans’ eating habits (and agricultural economy) forever. And there was more than this, because farmers seemed to have marketing problems with crops other than peanuts: Carver suggested hundreds of alternative uses for sweet potatoes, soy and pecan.
He was a tireless activist. While continuing his research activity, he published bulletins on the use of tomatoes, which at the time were not yet considered edible in the United States, of sweet potatoes and peanuts that have made the history of American agriculture. The titles of these publications – How to Grow the Tomato and 115 Ways to Prepare it for the Table, How to Grow the Peanut and 105 Ways of Preparing it for Human Consumption, How the Farmer can Save his Sweet Potatoes and Ways of Preparing them for the Table – testify that Carver considered it fundamental to take research results out of laboratories and spread them among farmers through an effective popularization work.
Thanks to George W. Carver’s ingenuity and work during the Great Depression, the value of peanuts, which was zero a few years earlier, had reached unimaginable proportions: a market that made over 250 million dollars for Southern farmers. Peanut oil alone was worth over 60 million dollars and peanut butter had become a national food in a few years.
To make Carver’s story even more extraordinary and, so to speak, edifying, we should remember that the huge contribution he gave to the creation of wealth in his nation never brought him a dollar. George W. Carver always lived very modestly, donating most of his salary – his only source of income – to a foundation he created for the development of agricultural research. He only patented three of his 500 and more inventions on the use of agricultural derivatives, and to those who reminded him of the huge amounts of money he could have gained, he simply answered that since God never asked to be paid for inventing peanuts, who was he to earn from their derivatives?
Thomas Alva Edison who, on the contrary, took extremely great care in protecting his inventions, tried in every way to obtain his services. He used to say that Carver was worth a fortune and offered him pharaonic sums to get him to work with him, sums that Carver regularly refused.
George Washington Carver was undoubtedly one of the most famous American people who lived between the nineteenth and the twentieth century, perhaps the most famous American black person of his time. Henry Ford said of him: “Professor Carver has taken Thomas Edison’s place as the world’s greatest living scientist”. Senator Champ Clark defined him “one of the foremost scientists of all the world for all time”.
Upon Carver’s death on January 5th 1943, on the initiative of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the American Congress enacted a law that made his birthplace a national monument, an honor previously granted only to George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. In 1977 Carver joined the Hall of Fame in New York, and to commemorate his life and revolutionary inventions in agriculture, the “George Washington Carver Recognition Day” is celebrated every year on January 5th.

(UOMINI CHE AMANO LE PIANTE di Stefano Mancuso, Giunti editore, pagg. 9-17)