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social sciences

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Carver, George Washington (1864?-1943)  
 
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The Carvers, a childless couple who had already raised his brother's three orphaned children to adulthood, took on the role of foster parents to both baby George and his older half-brother, Jim.

A frail and sickly child, George spent much of his time at home with Susan Carver, who taught him such skills as laundering, cooking, and knitting, a hobby that he continued to practice and enjoy throughout his life. The Carvers also taught him to read.

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Too fragile for either hard work or games, the young Carver passed much of his free time exploring the fields around his home and quickly became fascinated with flora. Neighbors soon dubbed him the "plant doctor" for his ability to care for growing things and revive ailing specimens.

Unusually for his time and place, Moses Carver was not a church-goer, but he let the children attend the local church, which had no resident minister but rather relied on itinerant preachers of a variety of Protestant denominations. It was there that young George Carver first developed his deep if unorthodox religious faith.

The Carver brothers began their formal education at a school held in the church building but withdrew after complaints from some white families. George Carver was avid to pursue an education, and so his foster father arranged for him to attend a black school in a town some eight miles away. Carver never again lived with his foster parents, but he maintained a warm relationship with them for the rest of their lives.

Carver's quest for schooling led him to several different towns, mostly in Kansas. He roomed with various families--both black and white--and supported himself by doing any odd job that presented itself, often putting his skills at laundering and cooking to good use.

In the mid-1880s Carver successfully applied to Highland College, a small Presbyterian institution in Kansas, only to be turned away when he attempted to register for classes, at which point school officials learned that he was black.

Dispirited by the setback, he moved to Ness County, Kansas, where he bought and worked a 160-acre farm before relocating to Winterset, Iowa and establishing a laundry business.

In 1890 Carver entered Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa. The only African-American at the Methodist school, he found his instructors and classmates encouraging and supportive. "They made me believe I was a real human being," he later wrote.

Carver planned to major in art, and his work impressed his painting teacher, Etta Budd. Once he began showing her plants that he had grafted or cross-fertilized, however, she suggested that he consider getting a degree in botany instead since he would have a better chance for financial security in that field than as a professional artist. She recommended that he attend the Iowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts (now Iowa State University), where her father was professor of horticulture.

Recognizing the practicality of Budd's advice, Carver followed it, transferring to Iowa State after a year at Simpson. He continued painting as an avocation, however, and when he entered several artworks in a state-wide show in 1892, one of them, "Yucca and Cactus," was chosen for inclusion in the exhibit representing Iowa at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.

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