Celebrating Black History Month with the father of organic agricultural science

Updated: Apr 10

It is Black history month and we have decided to highlight black scientists that have contributed to sustainability and corporate social responsibility.


In this first issue we would like to present George Washington Carver.



George Washington Carver


“Black Leonardo (…) The greatest Negro scientist alive”

TIME magazine [1]



This is how the TIME magazine described Georges Carver Washington in 1941.


We are not going to go into everything which is wrong in these sentences, but that was a compliment at the time!


We would prefer the quote of Henri Ford, who called him in 1940’s


"The greatest scientist alive”.

An artist, a scientist, a botanist, a geologist, a poet, an educator, and a humanitarian, this is a lot for one man.


Can you imagine the achievement, to reach that unanimous status, especially if you are born in the U.S.A. in 1864, during the civil war?


Being an orphan child of a race considered to be inferior, at a time where slavery and all the atrocities associated with it were still the norm, has probably an effect on the path he has built for himself.


All his life, segregation, preconception, limited resources, racial prejudice have always been delaying his education, his work, his search for answers, but he is resilience was admirable.


A lover of nature from an incredibly young age, he used to spend hours, observing it, understanding it, and healing it when necessary and/or possible.


From Diamond Grove to Neosho, from Fort Scott Kansas to Minneapolis, in a segregated school system, Carver attended all Black schools before his desire to learn more led him to Simpson College.




George Washington Carver as a young boy


From foster families to foster families, he met:

  • People who believed in his potential;

  • Role models that gave him his sense of purpose.

And that will be key in his life achievements.


“Education is the key to unlock the golden door of freedom”.

Georges Washington Carver


At Simpson College, he was warmly accepted, and started to study as an artist.

He had a particular genius in capturing the beauty of the nature.




George Washington Carver's painting




His art teacher, Etta Butt, helped him flourish as an artist, but realised that as a black man it would be exceedingly difficult for him to make a living.


But she also realised that he had a great interest for agriculture.


So, she encouraged him to pursue a degree in sciences at the Iowa University.



There, he had to face discrimination and humiliation in a daily basis.[2]

“Diversity is having a seat at the table; inclusion is having a voice and belonging is having that voice be heard”.


Eileen Hoenigman Meyer


These words of Eileen Hoenigman Meyer, written in her blog in 2019 to explain why diversity means more than having a diverse staff, were absolutely true then, and are still very relevant more than 100 years later.



Thanks to few white allies, such as Mrs Sophia Liston,[3] who understood that Mr. Carver was facing structural discrimination, and educated others to the importance of inclusion and belonging, he became the first African American to have a Master's degree.



Mrs. Sophia Liston (right) and Family


He was one of the first scientist to have a scientific approach to agriculture.


He earned lots of respect as a botanist thanks to his work on plant hybridisation, plant pathology, and mycology.


Eventually, he became the first black faculty member.


In 1895, Georges Carver had made a name for himself and seemed destined for a career as a professor.



George Washington Carver at Iowa State College


At the end of 1895, he was invited by Booker T Washington,[4] the president of the Tuskegee Institute, a teaching institute for black students in Alabama to lead the agricultural department.




Booker T Washington


The purpose of Booker T Washington was to make of Tuskegee a leading institution in agriculture, and for this, he needed a black man with an advanced degree in agriculture, and this man was George Washington Carver.


At this point you wonder, why going to the South, were the Jim Crow laws were enforced?


Why going to the South where segregation and violence against black people were known to be more violent and atrocious than in the rest of the country, despite the end of slavery?[5]



Because he had a purpose.


"You must learn all you can, then go back out into the world and give your learning back to the people"

Mariah Watkins

The man did not hesitate to go there as the words of Mariah Watkins,[1] one of his foster mothers, kicked in.



Mrs. Mariah Watkins



In 1896, when he joined the faculty of Tuskegee led by Tucker T. Washington, he faced great challenges.


From Iowa to Tuskegee, the land was quite different.


The green and colourful countryside was replaced by cotton and nothing else.



Black Cotton Farming family in 1890s


When Carver arrived in the South, there were 5 000 000 black farmers, only 1/5 of them owned any land.


All of them had common problems:

  • Over-reliance on cotton, the region’s main crop

  • Decades of sharecropping system leading to poor, eroded soils

  • Simple tools, and outdated techniques

Initially Carver wanted to teach the farmers a more modern, updated, and scientific approach to farming, for example with new machinery.

But the poverty of the farmers prevented from getting modern equipment.


So, he adapted his approach to practical ways to improve the lives of tenant farmers in the South.



“Whenever the soil is rich, the people flourish, physically and economically. Whenever the soil is wasted, the people are wasted.”

- George Washington Carver



For example, he taught them:


  • crop rotation to improve cotton yield and give farmers alternative cash crops.

  • that, what others would merely regard as weeds, could be edible plants

  • acorns and wines could become food for their animals.

  • wild fruits could be canned and preserved.

  • fertilizer could be created from waste.

  • the value of planting soil restoring crops such as sweet potatoes, peanuts, soy beans, cowpeas and even published recipes to use them.


In one word, he was the father of organic agriculture.


“My work was the one of conservation”

has said Carver in the late 1930’s while looking back at his career.


A master of science communication



Carver was not only a passionate scientist, he was also a great teacher and knew how to communicate his research findings so that everybody whatever their background could understand him.


He published illustrated “Agriculture bulletins” such as uneducated farmers could understand it.


He developed a mobile agriculture experiment teaching wagon to be closer to its public, the black farmers, the Jessop wagon.



The Jessop wagon


He preached sustainability and conservation all over the country.[7]


The father of corporate social responsibility (C.S.R.)

Working with soil restoring crops, Carver’s research led to industrial products beyond food such as dyes, paints, healthcare products (e.g. massage oil for polio victims).


He invented over 300 products from peanuts, paint products from clay, Cosmetics, etc. [8]




All his ideas were very ecologically sound, sustainable and helped the farmers to improve their life.


He befriended leaders all over the world:


With Henri Ford, he made industrial products from agriculture crops, and together they started to advocate for a greener industry.



George Washington Carver and Henri Ford



He became an advisor for the President Theodore Roosevelt on race relations.



Franklin D. Roosevelt greeting George Washington Carver in 1936


He advised Mahatma Gandhi on vegetarian diet and was one of the pioneers to introduce soy as vegetal protein in vegetarian diet.[9]


Conclusion


George Washington Carver has been reproached not to have been an activist, not to have fought enough white racism, to have just lived around it.


We think that this is quite unfair to him.


He was a distinguished scientist, able to have an influence all over the world, he helped black farmers to live better, while preserving the planet.


He was also an artist, recognised by his peers at the time and today.


He deeply loved people, he deeply loved the nature and tried to flourish them both.


Experiencing hate, despite, danger, disappointment he was never bitter, and this is probably why his life is so impactful.


Even at the peak of his fame, he had to endure discrimination and racism, nevertheless he continued to promote interracial understanding by giving the example, and restlessly talking about it.

[1] http://content.time.com/time/subscriber/article/0,33009,801330,00.html (as accessed on 07.02.2021)

[2] George Washington Carver: A Life (Southern Biography Series) - 2015

[3] https://www.nps.gov/gwca/learn/education/upload/Grade-4-Bio-Cards_Sophia-Liston.pdf (as accessed on 07.02.2021)

[4] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ew05QCsYcGA&ab_channel=USNationalArchives (as accessed on 07.02.2021)

[5] https://www.history.com/topics/early-20th-century-us/jim-crow-laws (as accessed on 07.02.2021)

[6] https://www.nps.gov/gwca/learn/education/upload/Grade-4-Bio-Cards_Mariah-Watkins.pdf (as accessed on 07.02.2021)

[7] https://www.aces.edu/blog/topics/news/the-jesup-wagon-rooted-in-history-still-used-today/ (as accessed on 07.02.2021)

[8] https://www.tuskegee.edu/support-tu/george-washington-carver/carver-peanut-products (as accessed on 07.02.2021)

[9] https://www.biography.com/news/george-washington-carver-friends (as accessed on 07.02.2021)