George Washington Carver Background Information for Teachers and Families

Grade Levels: K-3

George Washington Carver was born into slavery around 1864 on a plantation in Diamond Grove, Missouri. The exact year of his birth is unknown. When he was an infant, he and his mother were kidnapped by slave raiders. The owner of the farm traded a horse as ransom for the baby, but the mother was never seen again.

As a young boy, Carver loved to collect and learn about plants. We recommend watching the Parts of a Plant movie together as a review. He had a strong ambition to go to school, but the ones in his area did not accept African Americans. He learned to read and write at home, and at ten years old, he put himself through different schools. As a student, he loved art and showed great skill as a painter. Carver decided to pursue college and was accepted to Highland University, but was promptly denied when administrators discovered that he was black. After repeated rejections, he was finally accepted to Simpson College in Iowa, where he was the second African-American student to attend. There, he studied art but realized his true love was science, and after a year, he transferred to Iowa State Agricultural College, which is now Iowa State University. He was the first African-American student to attend and faced many challenges, but his passion for botany and agricultural science led him all the way to become the first African-American faculty member at the college.

Later African-American political activist and leader Booker T. Washington invited Carver to teach at the Tuskegee Institute, an esteemed university specifically for African Americans. Carver accepted the position and taught there until his death.

Carver realized that farmers in the South relied heavily on growing cotton, but the plants depleted the soil of its nutrients. After several seasons, the soil would not sustain new plants as well as before. Carver discovered that certain crops, such as peanuts, sweet potatoes, cowpeas, and soybeans returned proteins and nutrients into the soil. Carver suggested farmers plant soybeans one year and then plant cotton the next. His method of crop rotation saved countless acres of farmland in the South.

Carver began experimenting with peanuts and sweet potatoes because they were now readily available as cash crops. He developed hundreds of uses for peanuts alone, including lotion, shaving cream, wood stain, leather and cloth dye, rubbing oil, hair tonic, and even a laxative. He also made food products from peanuts, including vinegar, instant coffee, cocoa, mayonnaise, salad oil, and peanut punch. He developed over one hundred uses for sweet potatoes, including flour, sugar, instant coffee, yeast, wood stains, paint, medicine, and meal for livestock. During his lifetime, Carver only held three patents, all for cosmetic uses. He believed that food products came from a higher power and should not be a source of profit but rather available to all.

Carver died in 1943 and gave his entire life savings to science. In both 1948 and 1998, the U.S. Postal Service released commemorative stamps in his honor.