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social sciences

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Carver, George Washington (1864?-1943)  
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At Iowa State, Carver was once again the only black student, and his initial experience there was not as positive as it had been at Simpson: he was subjected to derogatory taunts and forced by the dining hall manager to take meals with the help in the basement. Nevertheless, he soon took an active role in campus life, joining the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) and serving as its missionary chairman for two years.

He was also a member of the art, debate, and German clubs and was among the organizers of the Agricultural Society. He appeared in school plays--once dressed in drag--and was, in addition, the first "rubber" (i.e., masseur) for the football team.

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Carver's early work in botany was impressive. Prior to his graduation in 1894, he had already published an article, "Grafting the Cacti" (1893), in the Transactions of the Iowa Horticultural Society and presented a paper on bulbs at the group's annual meeting (1894). Because of Carver's academic excellence, his professors urged him to pursue a Master's degree.

Agronomist and Teacher

Carver received his first teaching assignment when he was a graduate student. In his freshman biology classes he quickly acquired a reputation as an excellent teacher who inspired his students by his keen interest in his subject and who encouraged them to make their own discoveries.

While Carver was still doing graduate work at Iowa State, he received several job offers from other institutions, including one from Booker T. Washington of the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute (now Tuskegee University). Although it was not the most lucrative or prestigious, Carver accepted it because he believed that it was at Tuskegee that he could fulfill "the one ideal of my life to be of the greatest good to the greatest number of 'my people' possible."

When Carver began his career, the agricultural economy of the American South was largely dependent on a single crop, cotton. However, long years of growing it had left the soil depleted of nutrients. Carver understood the importance of crop diversification and therefore undertook experiments on plants that would not only enrich the soil but also be viable cash crops.

He focused in particular on sweet potatoes, soybeans, and peanuts. Carver stressed the practicality of these crops. His work on their cultivation, he wrote in the bulletin of the experiment station in 1905, had been conducted "keeping in mind the poor tenant farmer with one-horse equipment." He also called attention to the value of peanuts and soybeans as sources of protein, and included recipes in his bulletins to teach people how to use them.

By 1914 Southern cotton-growers were facing a crisis not only from the nutritional depletion of the soil but also from an infestation of boll weevils. Largely because of Carver's work, many turned to the cultivation of peanuts. Not even considered a crop--much less a cash crop--at the turn of the twentieth century, peanuts were, by 1940, second only to cotton in the agricultural economy of the American South.

The NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) awarded Carver its Spingarn Medal in 1923 in recognition of his contribution to improving the economic condition of Southern farmers.

By that time Carver had already gained a reputation as the "peanut man." In 1921 he had made an impressive presentation to the U.S. House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee in support of a protective tariff on peanuts, showing the congressmen a wide array of products made from peanuts and their hulls, mostly comestibles but also other items such as dyes. Carver's demonstration won the day, and the tariff prevailed.

Carver became much in demand as a speaker and, while he chafed a bit at the label of the "peanut man," which hardly did justice to the breadth of his research, he put up with it because his fame on that score redounded to the prestige of Tuskegee.

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