Missouri: George Washington Carver National Monument

This 210-acre site is the birthplace and childhood home of George Washington Carver, the revered African American agronomist, botanist, chemist, and conservationist. It includes the woodlands and prairie that Carver explored as a boy, along with his birthplace, the relocated house of his foster parents, and the Carver family cemetery.

Site Office

George Washington Carver National Monument

5646 Carver Road

Diamond, MO 64840

ph.: (417) 325-4151

fax: (417) 325-4231

Web site: www.nps.gov/gwca/

Instituted during World War II when influential politicians realized they needed to lift the morale and motivate the loyalty of African Americans, the national shrine of Carver’s birthplace was founded to commemorate the life and work of an outstanding black scientist, educator, and humanitarian. His agronomical discoveries had revitalized an impoverished Southern economy, and his racial views, which emphasized compromise, conciliation, and self-sufficiency, were admired by large numbers of black and white Americans. Although Carver spent only a decade on the Diamond Grove farm, the area and its community had an important influence on the course of his life.

The Farm and the Boy

The person who would become George Washington Carver was born on the southwest Missouri farm of Moses Carver, a German immigrant and slave-owning Unionist, but the date of his birth is uncertain. In his later life Carver gave 1864 as his birth year, but some scholars locate the event much earlier, in 1860 or 1861, whereas others opt for a later date, 1865. His mother was called Mary by her owners, Susan and Moses Carver, but his father’s identity is uncertain. According to Carver’s later memory, his father, a slave on a neighboring farm, was killed in a logrolling accident soon after George was born.

As a border state during the Civil War, Missouri contained people who were passionately for and against slavery. Moses Carver, who supported the North, became the prey of “bushwackers,” Southern sympathizers who kidnapped Mary and her infant son and took them into Confederate Arkansas (Jim, Mary’s older son, escaped this fate by hiding with Moses). With the help of a go-between, Moses Carver was eventually able to trade a three hundred-dollar racehorse for baby George, but Mary, unable to be found, was assumed to have died. These events occurred around the end of the Civil War, and so freedom and orphanhood came to George and Jim at the same time. The Carvers adopted the boys, and George bore his foster father’s last name for the rest of his life (his middle name, Washington, was added much later when he wished to differentiate himself from another George Carver). The boys lived with the Carvers, who treated them as “blood kin,” providing them with guidance and affection.

In contrast to his brother, who was robust and tall, George was sickly and short. Some scholars have explained George’s stunted growth and high-pitched voice as a result of castration by his kidnappers. In later life he occasionally hinted at a tragic incident in his past that prevented him from marrying. George’s frailty exempted him from physically demanding farm chores, but he was able to master such household tasks as cooking, canning, laundering, and crocheting. In his spare time he enjoyed walking in the woods and collecting wildflowers, which he replanted in his own garden. His ability to nurse sick plants to health earned him the sobriquet “plant doctor.”

Besides his curiosity about nature, George also exhibited an inquiring mind about reading, music, and art. He received an eclectic religious education from a variety of circuit preachers. His nondenominational faith was nevertheless deep, and he viewed many of his ideas and discoveries as due to divine revelations. Desiring more knowledge than the preachers and the Carver’s books could give, George tried to enroll in a local school but was rejected because of his race. However, a one-room school for blacks had been founded in Neosho, the Newton County seat, about eight miles from Diamond. George attended the Lincoln School for Negro Children while living with a black family for whom he did chores in exchange for room and board.

The Wandering Years

When George left his boyhood home in the late 1870’s in pursuit of an education, he began a peripatetic life through which he would learn who he was and what he was meant to do. He soon became a member of the black migration to free Kansas, traveling to Fort Scott. Horrified by the lynching of former slaves there, he departed for Olathe, Kansas, where he lived with a black couple, did odd jobs, and continued his schooling. In the summer of 1880, he followed this couple to Minneapolis, Kansas, where he set up a laundry business and attended high school. Exhibiting the versatility that he displayed throughout his life, he also painted pictures, experimented with plants, and played the accordion. After high school he tried a variety of things, including clerking at the Union Depot in Kansas City and successfully applying to a small college in Highland, Kansas. On arrival there, he was crushed to learn that the college did not accept students of his race.

Hearing of opportunities on the Kansas frontier, he traveled to Ness County, where he became a homesteader, building a sod house and attempting to farm his 160-acre claim. Droughts and blizzards doomed his enterprise, and he moved to Winterset, Iowa, where a white couple he met in church encouraged him to enter Simpson College. In 1889, he became the first African American to enroll in this small Methodist college. His ambition was to be an artist, but his art teacher, Etta Budd, encouraged him to pursue his interest in botany by enrolling in Iowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts where her father was professor of horticulture. Based on her strong letter of recommendation, he was accepted, and in 1891 he transferred to this college at Ames. He did extremely well academically, and his greenhouse work involving cross-fertilizing and grafting plants impressed his teachers. He also tutored the son of an agriculture professor. The father was Henry Cantwell Wallace, who would become secretary of agriculture in the cabinets of Presidents Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge, and his son, Henry Agard Wallace, would become secretary of agriculture during President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first two terms and, still later, vice president of the United States. Helped by these politicians, Carver was later able to develop successful agricultural extension programs to educate poor black farmers in the South.

Carver’s thesis for his bachelor’s degree was entitled “Plants as Modified by Man,” which described his experiments on hybridization. In 1894, he became the first African American to graduate from Iowa State, and he was offered a position as assistant to Louis H. Pammell, an eminent botanist and authority on mycology. As the first African American faculty member, Carver taught botany to undergraduates and conducted experiments on plants while managing the college’s greenhouse. His reports on new species of fungi led to some of them being named after him–for example, Taphrina carveri. He also discovered new chemicals that inhibited the growth of harmful fungi on plants. Praised as one of the most brilliant students in the botany department, Carver received his master’s degree in 1896.

Tuskegee Institute

Learning of Carver’s achievements, Booker T. Washington, head of the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute for Negroes, invited him to take charge of its agriculture department. Washington was trying to improve the status of African Americans through education, particularly in practical skills. Carver, who shared many of Washington’s ideals, accepted his invitation in 1896 and traveled to Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, where he would spend the next forty-seven years of his life.

Carver’s early years were challenging since Tuskegee’s laboratories were poorly equipped, and he had heavy teaching and administrative responsibilities (he also ran the school’s two farms). At first he improvised equipment from whatever was available, but after the state of Alabama funded an agricultural experiment station at Tuskegee, he was able, as its director, to purchase new equipment and begin to use his scientific knowledge of plants and soils to improve the fortunes of Southern farmers. Years of intensive cultivation of cotton and tobacco had depleted the soil of its basic nutrients, causing farmers to sink into debt and increasingly fruitless labor. As a remedy, Carver encouraged farmers to plant peanuts and soybeans. He knew that these plants help restore exhausted soils. He also found that Alabama’s soil was well suited to growing sweet potatoes. When farmers followed Carver’s advice, peanuts flooded the market, causing prices to drop. Some farmers were tempted to return to cultivating cotton. To prevent this, Carver explored alternative uses for peanuts and sweet potatoes. During his career at Tukegee, he developed more than three hundred by-products of the peanut, from dyes and soap to milk and cheese substitutes, and over a hundred derivatives from the sweet potato, including flour, molasses, ink, and postage-stamp glue. He freely shared the results of his experiments with the world through his bulletins, making no attempt to amass any personal fortune by patenting his discoveries. However, he did neglect his administrative duties, and this along with personality conflicts with Booker T. Washington led to his removal, in 1910, from the directorship of the experiment station. Carver was not overly disappointed with this decision, since his true interests lay in his educational projects and scientific research.

Although best known for developing derivatives from the peanut and sweet potato, Carver also developed by-products from pecans, soybeans, cowpeas, and plums. He extracted rubber from the milk of the goldenrod and paints from the clays of Alabama. Many of these products were simply curiosities, but those that proved commercially useful helped transform the economy of the South. When Carver first arrived at Tuskegee, the peanut was not even recognized as a crop, but by 1940 it was, after cotton, the second most valuable crop in the South. So impressed was Thomas A. Edison by Carver’s inventiveness that he offered the agronomist over $100,000 a year to work for him, but Carver declined the offer, as he did offers from many others, preferring to devote himself to improving the condition of “his people.”

In the mid-1930’s, Carver became an advocate for chemurgy, the development of new industrial chemical products from agricultural raw materials. In 1937, he met Henry Ford at a chemurgy conference, and a friendship developed between them. In 1941, Ford dedicated the Carver Museum at Tuskegee, and in 1942, he established a nutritional laboratory in Carver’s honor in Dearborn, Michigan. These are but a sampling of the many honors Carver received in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, but failing health meant that he could attend only some of the ceremonies. When he died from anemia on January 5, 1943, Tuskegee was deluged with letters of sympathy from around the nation. Carver was buried in the institute’s cemetery near the grave of Booker T. Washington.

The Establishment of the National Monument

Shortly after Carver’s death, on January 9, 1943, President Roosevelt paid tribute to him in an address before Congress. Senator Harry S Truman then introduced legislation to make Carver’s birthplace in Missouri a National Memorial, and members of Congress quickly passed a bill which, on July 14, 1943, was signed into law by the president. Although many white and black Americans genuinely admired Carver, wartime race relations actually constituted the context for the bill’s overwhelming support. The government’s Jim Crow employment policies and segregated military had created intense discontent among African Americans, hampering efforts to engage black workers and soldiers in the war effort. In lobbying for the bill, Truman tended to ignore the government’s segregation policies and emphasize Carver’s accomplishments. In rising from slavery and poverty to scientific greatness, Carver was a symbol to all that American democracy worked.

Problems plagued the actual establishment of the monument. The bill’s passage did not prevent violent racial conflicts during the summer of 1943. Furthermore, studies by scholars began to destroy the myth of Carver as the world’s greatest agronomist who had remade the South’s agricultural economy. The National Park Service tried to keep these revisionist interpretations hidden for fear of alienating African Americans. A further complication was the struggle that took place between Richard Pilant, a white Southern professor who had done much to make the Carver memorial a reality and wanted it consecrated to the goal of “race peace,” and Sidney J. Phillips, an African American who had successfully raised much money for the underfunded monument and who wanted to operate the memorial as a “model farm.” Pilant had the support of African Americans from Tuskegee who feared that Phillips was trying to monopolize control over Carver’s legacy. The alliance between Pilant and the Tuskegee professors proved powerful enough to gain control of the monument’s administration.

Carver, who hated confrontation and assiduously pursued reconciliation, would not have been happy with the political controversies over his monument. He even chose to separate himself from scientific controversies by not participating in professional meetings of chemists and botanists and by not publishing his discoveries in standard journals of scientific research where they would have been subjected to criticism. Instead, he published his results in bulletins that were directed primarily to farmers, not scientists. Knowing of the legal battles that often followed the patenting of inventions, Carver patented only three of his more than five hundred discoveries, reasoning that God had given him this knowledge, so how could he sell it? Although scholars have sought to reveal the complexities and contradictions in the life and work of this African American scientist, he himself saw his life simply–to use new knowledge to serve humanity, especially the poorest of “his people.”

For Further Information

  • Graham, Shirley, and George D. Lipscomb. Dr. George Washington Carver, Scientist. Parsippany, N.J.: Julian Messner, 1944. An early example of an idealistic biography intended for young readers.
  • Holt, Rackham. George Washington Carver: An American Biography. Rev. ed. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1963. Carver chose Holt to record his life, and this biography benefits from the author’s interviews with his subject and his subject’s friends and colleagues.
  • Kremer, Gary R., ed. George Washington Carver: In His Own Words. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1987. Besides collecting Carver’s correspondence and speeches, Kremer has included an extensive bibliography.
  • Mackintosh, Barry. “George Washington Carver: The Making of a Myth.” Journal of Southern History 42 (November, 1976): 507-528. The author’s controversial thesis is that Carver became famous because white Americans needed an appropriate racial symbol to atone for their prejudice against African Americans as a class.
  • McMurry, Linda O. George Washington Carver, Scientist and Symbol. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981. The author tries to separate the real man from his symbolic portrayals. It is the best scholarly treatment of Carver’s life and work, with extensive references in the endnotes to many primary as well as secondary sources.
  • West, Patricia. Domesticating History: The Political Origins of America’s House Museums. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1999. The author tells the often politically charged stories of how the homes of such great Americans as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were first established as museums, and she discusses how the George Washington Carver National Monument became a way of “desegregating” national memory.