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George Washington Carver: From Slave to Scientist by Janet and Geoff Benge

October 29, 2016


I don’t remember what I was reading recently when I came across a mention of George Washington Carver. I realized that I had heard his name before but knew nothing about the man.

Carver was born into slavery in Missouri in the 1860s. When he was a child, he and his family were kidnapped by raiders from Arkansas, who would sometimes come across the border and snatch slaves, then hurry back across the state line. George was eventually recovered and freed, but the rest of his family was not. The rest of George’s life is a tale of perseverance—a boy with a passion for learning, trying to make his way in a world where blacks had no advantage. George was denied admittance to schools, was turned away from places to dine and sleep, was witness to lynchings. Despite his intellectual gifts, he was often judged by the color of his skin. He was even accepted by a college in Kansas, only to be turned away when he showed up and they realized he was black.

Despite this, Carver became one of the leading botanists and one of the most beloved college professors of the time. He focused much of his work on finding crop substitutes for cotton. After the Civil War, many former slaves in the South turned to cotton farming since it was the only thing that many of them knew. But cotton was not a very profitable crop and was prone to infestation by a recent invasive species—the boll weevil. So Carver spent much of his effort finding uses for peanuts and their by-products, then educating farmers and convincing them to shift production away from cotton to peanuts. In doing so, he helped many former slaves gain an economic foothold.

Carver also became a lauded professor at Tuskegee University in Alabama, often conducting science experiments in his room in the student dorm. He earned a reputation as one of the foremost botanists of the day. Teddy Roosevelt consulted Carver on agricultural issues facing the nation and Thomas Edison offered him a job for a reportedly lavish sum of money.  But Carver declined the offer, loving his life at Tuskegee too much to leave it.

Carver died in 1943 and is buried next to Booker T Washington in Tuskegee. His tombstone reads, “He could have added fortune to fame, but caring for neither, he found happiness and honor in being helpful to the world.”

This book is for young readers, so the language is simple and straightforward. At times it reads more like a tall tale than a true biography, but such was the life of George Washington Carver.

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