Powdered coffee, shaving cream, plastics, paper, shampoo, milk, cream, synthetic rubber, beverages, metal polishes. It might be surprising, but all these products and hundreds more can be extracted from the peanut, and the man responsible for all these uses is George Washington Carver.
The discoveries Carver made about the peanut are quite remarkable and have had a tremendous effect on farmers in the South and in countries around the world. What is truly remarkable is the man himself. His life and work are inspirational, and there is much that we can all learn from both.
George Washington Carver was born into slavery about 1864. During the Civil War, Night Riders took both him and his mother from the cabin where they lived. After a few days, baby George was returned to his owners in trade for a horse. His mother was never seen again and was most likely sold. George was sick, but the Carver family, who were kind people, nursed him back to health. They grew to love George and saw in him a unique and special talent.
George was a small, gentle child, who showed a love for plants and life early on. He had a need and longing to learn. He watched, listened, and experimented with the soil and growing things. He made many discoveries that others never noticed, and he displayed a gentle respect for all living things. His love of learning took him away from his home with the Carvers and to a town that had a school African-American children were allowed to attend. Another family gave him a home in exchange for work. He stayed there and attended school until he was 13. At that age, he had learned all the school had to offer, and he once again began a search for another school.
While at his new school, the teacher noticed what a talented artist George was, so she enrolled him in an art class. Not having money for paints, he discovered nature’s paints in clay, berries, and decayed fruits and vegetables. Just as he did early on with his paints, George found answers to many questions throughout his life in the world around him.
George graduated from high school at the top of his class and looked forward to college. However, his first attempts to enroll were met with disappointment. He was not allowed to attend because he was not white, but George didn’t give up his dreams. He was committed to going to college and someday to teach his African-American brothers who were not allowed to go to a white school. He deeply wanted to help the southern farmers improve their methods and products. Before he finally found a college that would accept him, he continued to impress people with his talents in art, music, cooking, and gardening and with his kind, gentle nature.
Simpson College finally accepted George, and he entered as a student in art and music. He did very well at Simpson. He made many friends and earned the respect of his professors, but he felt that he was somehow headed in the wrong direction. He wanted to help his people, and he longed to do it through farming. So he transferred to the best agricultural college in the United States – the Iowa Agricultural College at Ames. He excelled there and was offered a job as an instructor. He accepted and enjoyed his tenure.
It wasn’t long before he received an unusual offer that he couldn’t refuse. A man named Booker T. Washington asked him to head the department of agriculture at Tuskegee Institute, a small Alabama school for African-American teachers. He took the offer, and it was there that he worked and committed his life to helping improve the lives of poor families.
Cotton, the main crop of the South, was in trouble because of the boll weevil. Cotton plantations were being destroyed year after year. Because of this devastation, Carver was determined to find an alternative to the dependence on cotton. He experimented with the peanut and discovered the many products that could be extracted from it. He also taught farmers to rotate their crops each year so as not to exhaust the nutrients from the soil. Farmers were encouraged to rotate cotton with cowpeas, sweet potatoes, and other crops. This proved very successful, and he continued to encourage planting the peanut. The plant was easy to grow, it enriched the soil, it could be used in many dishes, and it contained a great deal of protein.
The peanut and rotation farming were only two of the discoveries Carver made that helped people both in the South and around the world. During World War I, shortages of some foods led the army to call on Carver to demonstrate using sweet potato flour as a substitute for wheat. During World War II, he introduced the process of drying food, or dehydration, to preserve food for later use. He was also a leading scientist in the development of synthetics for articles such as tires, clothing, medicines, and foods that were scarce because of the war.
Carver never stopped his search for knowledge and his search for a better way to help his people. His discoveries were many, and his influence was great. He was recognized around the world and at home for his great contributions. Even though he lived in a world that continually insulted him because of the color of his skin, he never stopped caring and loving all his fellow men.
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