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social sciences

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Carver, George Washington (1864?-1943)  
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Agronomist and educator George Washington Carver is best known for his research on peanuts, for which he found over three hundred uses. During his lifetime, he became a cultural icon, the "Wizard of Tuskegee," an African-American scientist who, in an age of segregation, was not only revered by blacks but also admired by whites. So great was his fame that, in the words of biographer Linda O. McMurry, "by the mid-1930s almost every town in America seemed destined to have a Carver High School."

The story of Carver's rise from humble birth as a slave to international acclaim as a scientist seemed the stuff of legend, and the frequent--if not always accurate--retelling of it in the popular press turned him into an almost mythic figure. "The net result," states McMurry, "has been to make him one of the best-known, and least-understood, blacks who ever lived."

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One of the facts of his life that was not well known and that would, especially in his own time, have prevented him from winning widespread esteem, was his homosexuality.

Carver as Folk Saint

Carver's scientific achievements, his humility (or at least the public perception of it), and his deep religiosity turned him into something of a folk saint. His work as an agronomist brought him into contact with people from diverse walks of life--poor Southern black sharecroppers, members of the international scientific community, government officials, and business leaders such as Henry Ford--nearly all of whom were impressed by his intellect and his dedication to serving others.

Carver believed that his intellect was a gift from God, bestowed upon him so that he could help improve the economic lot of poor African-American farmers; therefore, in his research he always stressed the practical applications of science.

Carver also believed in divine revelation and declared that his discoveries in the laboratory came when God "dr[e]w aside the curtain" to let him see what to do. This idea appealed to many religious members of the public but discomfited scientists and other commentators who felt that such statements disparaged the scientific method and could undermine Carver's reputation as a learnèd African-American.

For the majority of African-Americans, Carver was a person to point to with pride, a professor at all-black Tuskegee who was consulted and held in high regard by prestigious white people. Some, however, complained that Carver's demeanor was unduly deferential to whites and that he did not use his status as a highly regarded figure to engage more strongly in political activity for civil rights.

Views about Carver seemed to depend as much on the observer as on the man himself. Few were aware of all the aspects of his life; for many, he was as much a symbol as a person, the central figure in a dramatic and inspiring life story.

Early Life and Education

The events of Carver's earliest years do indeed sound like the stuff of legend. He was born to a slave named Mary on the Diamond (also known as Diamond Grove), Missouri farm of Moses and Susan Carver shortly before the end of the Civil War. Although his birth date is sometimes given as July 12, 1864, the actual date is not known. While he was just an infant, he and his mother were abducted by slave-raiders. Searchers were unable to discover the fate of Mary, but they recovered the child.

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George Washington Carver in 1906. Photograph by Frances Benjamin Johnston.
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