Skip to content

George Washington Carver

Submitted by Joe Colletti, PhD

Main location of work: U.S.A.

Known for:

  • Exposing soil depletion by repeat plantings of cotton
  • Restoring nutrients to soil by rotating crops
George Washington Carver I cropped

Issues Impacted

Poverty

Social ecology

Environmental health

Methods Used

Research

Publications

Public speaking

Locations Influenced

Southern United States

United States

Videos about George Washington Carver as Social Reformer

What Made George Washington Carver So Effective as a Reformer?

A social reformer is truly someone who goes beyond advocating for better social and economic conditions in order to alleviate and/or end poverty. George Washington Carver did not just advocate for reform and then leave it in the hands of others to implement. He took actions with his own hands to ensure that reform happened.

As a social reformer, his actions fulfilled his desire to lift poor Black and White farmers out of poverty. Many were sharecroppers who were caught in a seemingly endless cycle of debt and poverty. As the twentieth century approached, the monoculture of cotton depleted the soil in the South where 90% of Blacks lived and worked in the United States.

He improved the overworked soil of the South. After demonstrating how cotton farming was exhausting the soil of nutrients and thus, how the average yield of cotton from a planted field was dwindling at an alarming rate, Carver promoted the idea of crop rotation to enrich the soil. He convinced farmers to plant a variety of crops to not only enrich the soil, but to plant as cash crops as well. Consequently, the more and more farmers planted soybeans, pecans, sweet potatoes, black-eyed peas, and most importantly peanuts, the more and more farmers climbed out of debt and poverty.

A Brief Overview of George Washington Carver's Life and Work

George Washington Carver (c. 1860 - 5 January 1943) attended Iowa State Agricultural College in Ames to study botany. The year was 1891 and he was the institution's first black student. After obtaining a Bachelor's Degree, he stayed there and completed a Master's Degree. He soon gained national attention as a well-respected botanist and became the first black faculty member at Iowa State.

Carver was recruited by the renowned author, educator, orator, and advisor to three U.S. presidents, Booker T. Washington who invited Carver to lead the Agricultural Department at the historically black Tuskegee University in Alabama, which he did for 47 years.

As a social reformer, his activities centered on his desire to lift poor Black and White famers out of poverty. Blacks in particular were trapped as sharecroppers in an endless cycle of debt and poverty. At that time the monoculture of cotton depleted the soil in the South, at a time when nine out of ten Blacks lived in the United States.

He developed the Agricultural Department into a strong research center during his tenure. He, along with other professors and students, worked hard to improve the overworked soil of the South. He experimented inside the Center and outside. In the Center, he taught black students farming techniques to achieve self-sufficiency. He designed a mobile classroom so that he and his students could work with farmers on their own land.

He is most famous for discovering 300 uses from the peanut that grew wild at the time on the sides of roads and largely considered cattle feed by farmers. He not only taught how nutritious and inexpensive meals could be made from the peanut but also taught how the same can be done with pecans, sweet potatoes, and black-eyed peas, staples that were also underappreciated by most farmers.

He became known for delivering free lectures for poor farmers throughout the South that focused on meal consumption. At the same time, he taught his methods of crop rotation, introducing the many crops already mentioned to improve the soil of areas heavily cultivated in cotton. Farmers were eager to hear how they could improve their soil by growing these crops and use them for cash.

Carver died at age 78 and is buried at Tuskegee University next to Booker T. Washington. On his tomb the following is written "He could have added fortune to fame, but caring for neither, he found happiness and honor in being helpful to the world."

More about George Washington Carver