Most people know that February is Black History Month. Many have heard of many famous and important contributors to the advancement of this great nation, such as Frederick Douglass, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., Thurgood Marshall and many others.
However, my favorite man contributed immensely to our nation and his race. He was a pioneer and advocate of agriculture, and by the end of this article, I trust you will see his contributions all around you.
One of my favorite Americans is George Washington Carver.
From inauspicious and dramatic beginnings, Carver became one of the nation’s greatest educators and agricultural researchers.
From an early age, he developed a keen interest in plants. He gathered and cared for a wide variety of flora from the land near his home and became known as the “plant doctor,” helping neighbors and friends with ailing plants.
Carver had a great thirst for knowledge and desire for formal education.
In 1890, he enrolled in Simpson College to study piano and painting. He excelled in art and music, but art instructor Etta Budd, whose father was head of the Iowa State College Department of Horticulture, recognized Carver’s horticultural talents. She convinced him to pursue a career in scientific agriculture, and in 1891, he became the first black person to enroll at Iowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts, which today is Iowa State University.
Carver’s interests in music and art remained strong, but it was his excellence in botany and horticulture that prompted his professors to encourage him to stay on as a graduate student.
Because of his expertise in plant breeding, Carver was appointed to the faculty, becoming Iowa State’s first black faculty member.
Over the next two years, as assistant botanist for the College Experiment Station, he published several articles on his work in plant pathology and mycology, and gained national respect.
After completing his master’s degree, Dr. Booker T. Washington hired the bright man.
It was at Tuskegee that he gained an international reputation in research, teaching and outreach.
Carver taught his students that nature is the greatest teacher and that by understanding the forces in nature, one can understand the dynamics of agriculture.
He instilled in them the attitude of gentleness and taught that education should be “made common,” or used for betterment of the people in the community.
Carver’s work resulted in the creation of 325 products from peanuts, more than 100 products from sweet potatoes and hundreds more from a dozen other plants native to the South. These products contributed to rural economic improvement by offering alternative crops to cotton that were beneficial for the farmers and the land.
During this time, Carver introduced the Extension concept to the South and created “movable schools,” bringing practical agricultural knowledge to farmers, thereby promoting health, sound nutrition and self-sufficiency.
It was during my research of this often-overlooked American hero that I discovered we owe him for a lot more than the proliferation of peanuts.
In closing, I will leave you with a quote from Carver: “No individual has any right to come into this world and go out of it without leaving behind him distinct and legitimate reasons for having passed through it. How far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving, and tolerant of the weak and the strong. Because someday in life, you will have been all of these.”
Jeff Semler is an Extension educator, specializing in agriculture and natural resources, for the University of Maryland Extension. He is based in Washington County. He can be reached at 301-791-1404, ext. 25, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.