George Washington Carver: Grandfather of Sustainability – Part III

George Washington Carver Library of Congress 400 dpi

Image from Library of Congress.


In Part II, we left George Washington Carver as he just accepted an offer from Booker T. Washington to come to a new and financially struggling black college in Alabama–Tuskegee Institute.

This brilliant mini-biography by Cheri Colburn first appeared in Greenwoman #2.  It’s available in that issue, or in its entirety as an ebook on

Now, back to the story:


In Service to His Race

As the train jostled from Ames, Iowa, to Tuskegee, Alabama, in October of 1896, George Washington Carver, now 35, contemplated the people he saw working in the countryside. It was harvest season, and every available hand was in the cotton fields. As the train passed, African American men, women, and children would straighten a bit, look with flat expression toward the train and then bend again into their work. Already Carver was getting a sense of slavery’s aftermath in the Deep South.

Carver likely also contemplated the task he had agreed to undertake. He had myriad responsibilities at Tuskegee. Perhaps most obviously, he was to teach. He was also charged with making money for Tuskegee’s operating expenses by planting cash crops. Last and most importantly, he was to contribute his efforts to the overriding goal of the school: to educate and improve the lives of African Americans. Carver held this final goal most closely.

Carver the Teacher

Farming had a tarnished reputation in the South, and many of the students who came to Tuskegee wanted to study other things. Carver knew, however, that most of his students were destined to return to the family farm. He persuaded students to enter the School of Agriculture by selling it as “agricultural science” instead of “farming.”

Nevertheless, once enrolled, his students found themselves engaged in harshly familiar work. They tilled the soil, cleared land, and planted crops. But they also received a whole new perspective on the study of plants and how they grow. In fact, this perspective was not just new to his students; it was new to the field of botany.

Carver had long been frustrated by traditional teaching methods, which he perceived focused on erudite and impractical information geared toward scientists rather than useful application. From Holt: “The object was to know plants, or why study it? Instead the student was given a lot of technical terms, and when he had learned those he did not really know plants.” Carver proposed that plants be taught in like groups and that as each plant or type of plant was learned, its diseases be presented as well. He put plants “into the great family by common characteristics and subdivided into the smaller groups by distinct differences.”

In addition to teaching agriculture, botany, and related subjects, Carver held Bible study classes. He was somewhat nontraditional both in his manner of presenting information (often theatrically) and in his beliefs. According to Holt, Carver once said, “Nothing is more beautiful than the loveliness of the woods before sunrise. At no other time have I so sharp an understanding of what God means to do with me as in these hours of dawn. When other folk are still asleep, I hear God best and learn his plan.”

Holt wrote further of Carver’s Sunday morning talks: “For Professor Carver no conflict existed between religion and science; science confirmed the Scriptures rather than opposed them, and God and the spiritual world were closely united to the natural world.” Later in his life, Carver was the object of some suspicion for his poorly understood and often misquoted religious views, but he held fast. As far as he was concerned, God was to be found not only in church but also in the very dirt beneath his feet.


George Washington Carver (front and center) with staff members at the Tuskegee Institute. (Library of Congress)

George Washington Carver (front and center) with staff members at the Tuskegee Institute. (Library of Congress)


Carver the Scientist

With this subject—dirt—Carver was deeply concerned. After all, he was charged with making money via crops to help support the mission of Tuskegee. Tuskegee had some benefactors, but the goal was to be self-supporting, and in this effort, student tuition was not much help. Students were never turned away from Tuskegee, and many of them worked their way through. They worked in the fields, baked bricks from clay soil, built badly needed new structures, dug ditches to route water. They cooked, they cleaned, they sewed, and they did laundry. But they often did not pay tuition.

As a result, the school badly needed to show a profit in the form of crops, and making money from the land surrounding Tuskegee was no small task. Like most of the land in the South, Tuskegee’s grounds had been completely wasted by cotton—a deep feeder that had blanketed the land for over a century. Carver knew that the soil must be enriched, and he implemented new practices to do so. While established practice said that plowing should be shallow, he plowed deep so that the plants could reach fertile soil. While established practice said that last year’s growth should be burned off, Carver tilled dead stalks back into the ground. While established practice said that kitchen waste was garbage, he mined garbage heaps for their rich soil, tilling it back into the fields. He also began a compost pit adding all of the school’s organic waste—paper, leaves, rags, grass, weeds, kitchen waste, street sweeping—anything that would rot.

Over time, Tuskegee began to make money from the land. “The loss from the Station the first year was $2.50 an acre. The next year also the ledger read $2.50, but in black instead of red. In seven years, with no commercial fertilizer whatever, it profited $75 an acre.” (Holt)

New Crops and New Products

One of the ways that Carver increased the yield (and the profit) at Tuskegee was to diversify the crops that were grown there. Among the crops he planted were legumes—chiefly cowpeas and peanuts. (He also experimented with a new crop from Asia, which we now know as the ubiquitous soybean). Carver knew that legumes add nitrogen to the soil, and he knew that Southern soils were in desperate need of this vital nutrient. For similar reasons, he also encouraged the planting of sweet potatoes. (Sweet potatoes, a member of the morning glory family, by the way, do not actually add nitrogen to the soil, but they don’t drain it either.)

Carver knew that the crops he championed were good not only for the health of Southern soils but also for the health of Southern people. Carver was deeply concerned with what he observed to be an unhealthy diet of cheap meat and starch purchased in the stores of white landholders. He knew that if Southern black farmers diversified their plantings, both their health and their wallets would be improved.


The peanut plant.

Cowpeas (better known, by me at least, as black-eyed peas) had long been grown as feed for livestock, but Carver encouraged people to add them to their own diets. He also knew that “Pound for pound the peanut topped sirloin for proteins, the best potatoes for carbohydrates, and the best butter for fat.” (Holt) And he knew, as most nutrition-conscious people today know, that sweet potatoes are extremely high in vitamin A and fairly high in vitamin C as well (not to mention high-quality, fiber-rich carbohydrate).

But there was a double-edged problem. First, people must be convinced that these crops were both nutritious and delicious. Second, they needed to be able to make money on what they planted; in other words, if the Southern farmer was going to plant legumes and sweet potatoes, there needed to be commercial demand. Carver set to work.

Carver knew that the crops he recommended would have to be not only pleasing to the soils, but pleasing to the palate as well. Most families had always planted a few “goobers” here and there next to fence posts as treats for their children and sometimes as feed for livestock. Carver wanted to convince them that legumes could be a larger part of their diets, so he used the cooking skills he’d developed over decades to create  over 100 ways to prepare peanuts for consumption—including dishes as wide-ranging as mock chicken and desserts—and he created 18 recipes using the cowpea.

Still, Carver knew farmers were in business to make money. He needed to create a commercial demand for these crops, and toward this end, he worked tirelessly. In a lab wholly created with materials salvaged from the garbage heap. (Carver and his students punched holes in tin to make graders, found reeds to use as makeshift pipettes, and reclaimed a cracked china bowl for use as a mortar.) Carver broke plants down into their component parts to discover industrial applications. He called this study “synthetics,” and he was quite successful. (It’s ironic, really, that the word synthetic used to have such a progressive feel to it; now it is virtually synonymous with fake.)

In his laboratory, Carver created hundreds of products from the peanut. He created (merely for example) milk, butter, meal, cold drinks, oil (cooking, salad, and industrial), lotions, face creams, and face powder.  From the sweet potato, he created laundry starch that could be made not only commercially but also at home, theoretically improving the bearing of all those who used it.

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The sweet potato.

Carver not only created new products; he also worked to stimulate a demand for them. In this last effort—stimulating demand—Carver was helped along by the first World War, which brought the flow of German chemicals, fertilizers, and dyes to an abrupt halt. The head of one dye producer, upon learning of Carver’s work, sent him a blank check indicating that Carver could come to work for his company and become a wealthy man. Carver declined that offer and many similar offers over the years (including a $100,000-per-year offer from Thomas Edison). In fact, Carver’s wish was for enterprising people to take his ideas and develop them; he never profited from his inventions and rarely even took a patent.

To offer a little more insight into Carver’s character, I have to tell you that Carver rarely profited financially from his tireless effort. He was hired at Tuskegee for a salary of $125 per month, and that was his wage for nearly 40 years until he died. Carver was hard-pressed to even find time to cash his paychecks (which confounded Tuskegee’s bookkeepers). Instead, his habit was to stash them into books or boxes and to offer them up when hard-working students needed assistance or when Booker T. Washington himself told Carver of the school’s need. When he died, Carver had over $30,000 in the bank, and he donated that money back to Tuskegee.

Stay tuned for the final installment of George Washington Carver: Grandfather of Sustainability next week!

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Cheri Colburn is a writer and editor who brings books into being through her midwifery business, The Finished Book. Her “likes” include hiking, the sound of her children’s voices, and long days digging in the dirt. Her “dislikes” include dieting, deadlines, and quitting bad habits.

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