Students will learn about the remarkable career of George Washington Carver, who was born into slavery and went on to become a leading botanist. In addition to watching a short biographical video, students will examine and analyze a photograph of Carver at Tuskegee Institute and read excerpts from his Congressional testimony on behalf of the United Peanut Association of America. The lesson will culminate with students making advertisements about some of Carver’s many peanut-based innovations.
20 - 40 minutes.
- Botanist - a person who studies plants
- Jeers - derogatory remarks
- Steadfast - unchanging
- Prevail - to win
- Tariff – a tax on a good that is imported or exported
- Prowess – skill
- Epitaph - a phrase to commemorate a person, especially on their tombstone
Tuskegee Institute - A school founded in Alabama in 1881 and closely associated with its first principal, Booker T. Washington. Tuskegee was opened as a “normal school”--a place to train teachers. It became known for an emphasis on industrial education, the teaching of agricultural and vocational skills. With Washington’s tireless fundraising and ability to make allies of wealthy white men, Tuskegee Institute became a leading institution in the education of African Americans. The school continues to this day as Tuskegee University, one of the nation’s many HBCU’s (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) that traces its origins to the Reconstruction era.
Learn more about the Tuskegee Institute:
- The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow | Booker T. Washington: An Education [PBS Learning Media]
- Tuskegee University Website
- Tuskegee Institute Founded [PBS]
Background on George Washington Carver | Scientist, Inventor, and Teacher
George Washington Carver was born sometime during the Civil War as “Carver’s George,” enslaved to Susan and Moses Carver, successful Missouri farmers. He was orphaned as a baby, but after slavery was abolished, the Carvers took him in and raised him as a son, teaching him to read and write. His intellect was obvious and prodigious. However, because he was African American, he wasn’t allowed to attend the local public school.
He moved away from home to continue his education and, eventually, received his diploma from Minneapolis High School in Minneapolis, Kansas. From there, he enrolled at Simpson College in Iowa to pursue art and music. His teachers noticed his brilliance in both art and science and suggested that he instead transfer to Iowa State Agricultural College to study agriculture and botany. He was so successful, his professors asked him to stay on not only for a Master’s degree, but to become a professor himself (the first African American professor there).
In 1896, Booker T. Washington hired him to lead a new agricultural department at the Tuskegee Institute. The department became world-renowned thanks to Carver’s research and innovations. Carver was dedicated to helping Southern farmers, particularly sharecroppers, become more successful. He developed methods to improve soil, particularly focusing on crop rotation techniques that would diversify the heavy reliance on cotton.
Carver introduced peanuts, soybeans, cowpeas, and sweet potatoes. Not only did these crops help the soil, they provided a food source and alternatives to the sale of cotton. The new crops gave the farmers more economic stability.
Carver also was innovative in how he taught the farmers. He devised a mobile classroom that could go directly to them and assist on site. In Alabama, he started an agricultural extension program -- another form of direct farmer education. Furthermore, Carver established an industrial research lab, where he experimented with hundreds of industrial uses for the new crops.
Carver became particularly well known for his expertise with the peanut crop. After presenting a lecture called “The Possibilities of the Peanut” (along with 145 peanut products) to the United Peanut Associations of America in 1920, the group selected him to testify before Congress in 1921 on its behalf. The group wanted Congress to pass a tariff on imported peanuts from China. African Americans rarely testified before Congress, and initially some Congressmen mocked him. But as he spoke about the importance of the peanut for American agriculture and industry, they listened. And, in 1922, Congress passed the tariff to protect American peanut interests.
Although not directly involved in politics, Carver used his tremendous reputation to advocate for racial harmony. The YMCA and the Commission on Interracial Cooperation sponsored his visits to white-only colleges, where he lectured on agriculture, a common ground to all farmers regardless of race. His contributions to America’s farmers and farming economy made him a hero all-around.
Carver was frugal and saved most of his earnings. He contributed his life’s savings to establish the George Washington Carver Foundation at Tuskegee and the Carver Museum to encourage future generations of African Americans to pursue agriculture and scientific education. Carver died on January 5, 1943, at age 78. His epitaph encapsulates his life: “He could have added fortune to fame, but caring for neither, he found happiness and honor in being helpful to the world.”
- Ask students: What kinds of problems can be solved by science?
- Introduce George Washington Carver:
Although George Washington Carver was born into slavery, his relentless thirst for knowledge led him to become one of the most outstanding scientists of his era. Best known for his work with peanuts, Carver’s many innovations directly improved people’s quality of life.
Video and Class Discussion (10 minutes)
Distribute the Graphic Organizer for students to fill out while viewing the video.
Download the Graphic Organizer [PDF]
Discussion questions after viewing:
1. Why do you think Carver was willing to take a pay cut to come to the Tuskegee Institute from the more prestigious Iowa State University?
2. If Carver were alive today, what scientific problems do you think he would work on solving?
3. Why did some members of the US Congress object to Carver’s testimony in front of the House of Representatives about a tariff on Chinese peanuts? What made him qualified to speak on this topic?
Examining Primary Sources
Visual Primary Source Activity (5 minutes)
Project or make copies of the image to the right. This 1906 photograph of George Washington Carver is believed to have been taken on the grounds of the Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University), where he taught. It was taken by Frances Benjamin Johnston, one of the first female photographers and photojournalists. In addition to taking portraits of notable people like George Washington Carver, Susan B. Anthony, and Booker T. Washington, she also served as White House photographer for five different presidents. The photograph is from the Library of Congress collections.
- Why do you think George Washington Carver is holding a chunk of soil? Is there a problem he may be trying to solve?
- Even though Carver is wearing a suit, this photograph was taken out in a field rather than in a classroom or laboratory. Why do you think this might have been the case?
- In what ways is Carver exemplifying Booker T. Washington’s philosophy of education in this photograph?
Written Primary Source Activity (25 minutes)
In 1921, George Washington Carver spoke before the House Ways and Means Committee that was reviewing tariff policies on a variety of agricultural products. Students will read excerpts of Carver’s testimony to glean information about both Carver himself and the peanut, the crop with which he is most closely associated.
This can be done as an in-class follow-up to the lesson, as a homework assignment or as a multi-day in-class project.
Choose one of the products on the list and indicate how it could have helped people improve their quality of life. Then, come up with a product brand name and develop an advertisement emphasizing that the product is made with peanuts. The advertisement can be in the form of a poster, a skit, a jingle, etc.