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Unit 2: Those Inventive Americans!

Suggested Activities

George Washington Carver

Era 7: The Emergence of Modern America

  1. You have probably heard of George Washington Carver as the inventor of peanut butter. Did you know, however, that he developed more than three hundred derivative products from the peanut? Investigate Carver's life and explain his major advances in agricultural research. Why were his experiments with peanuts, sweet potatoes, and soybeans so significant for southern farmers at the time?
    [Standard 4—historical research capabilities]

The primary purpose of Carver's research was to help southern farmers improve their lives by teaching them better ways of farming. Many farmers had exhausted the soil by continually planting cotton, which utilizes a tremendous amount of the soil's nutrients. Carver encouraged farmers to rotate their crops, alternating cotton with legumes such as sweet potatoes, peanuts, and soybeans, which restore nitrogen to the soil and are good sources of protein. Because the demand for peanuts and sweet potatoes was not high, Carver set out to increase their commercial potential. He ultimately developed more than four hundred synthetic products from peanuts and sweet potatoes, including ink, dyes, plastics, soap, postage-stamp glue, flour, and molasses. Peanuts eventually became the second-largest cash crop in the South, after cotton.

George Washington Carver (1864–1943)
Betsy Graves Reyneau (1888–1964)
Oil on canvas, 1942
Transfer from the National Museum of American Art; gift of the George Washington Carver Memorial Committee to the Smithsonian Institution, 1944
NPG.65.77

  1. In this portrait, George Washington Carver is painted in an informal, unassuming manner, wearing a lab coat and examining an amaryllis. By looking at this painting, the viewer might not realize that the subject was a world-renowned scientist. If you were going to paint a portrait of Carver to illustrate his many achievements, what elements would you include? What kind of setting would you choose for him to pose in?
    [Standard 3—historical analysis and interpretation]

A great number of elements could be incorporated into a portrait of Carver that would more clearly illustrate his contributions to agricultural science and his impact on southern farmers. They include: peanuts, sweet potatoes, soybeans, and examples of the products he derived from them; plants that he cultivated and hybridized (like the amaryllis); or agricultural tools that he worked with on his experimental farm. Appropriate settings would be a laboratory, a farm, a classroom, or an awards ceremony. Famous people who sought his assistance or honored his achievements could also be included, such as Thomas Edison, Calvin Coolidge, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Henry Ford, Mohandas Gandhi, and Joseph Stalin.

By all accounts, however, George Washington Carver was a humble man who did not pursue the fame and fortune that could have resulted from his formidable accomplishments. This portrait by artist Betsy Graves Reyneau speaks to Carver's modesty. It is the only known portrait of Carver painted from life, and he agreed to pose informally for it because of the artist's ability to capture "the souls of people" in her paintings.

  1. Booker T. Washington invited George Washington Carver to head the Department of Agriculture at the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in 1896. Carver accepted the offer and never left Tuskegee. Research the Tuskegee Institute and its founder, Booker T. Washington. When and why was the school founded? What was its mission? What were Washington' ideas about segregation and why were they controversial?
    [Standard 3—historical analysis and interpretation]

In 1880 the Alabama state legislature established the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute as a school for training African American teachers. Booker T. Washington essentially founded the school in 1881 and remained its president until his death in 1915. Washington believed that the best way for African Americans to rise above their primarily impoverished circumstances was to receive training in vocational and agricultural skills. He discouraged African Americans from actively seeking integration and civil rights, believing that through education and hard work they would gradually gain respect and acceptance from white society.

Although Washington's ideas were widely supported by the white community, many African American intellectuals such as W.E.B. Du Bois rejected Washington's emphasis on teaching manual skills at the expense of intellectual development and civil rights. Du Bois's objections were legitimate: During Washington's period of influence, segregation and discrimination were rampant, and few meaningful advances were made toward equality of the races.

Booker T. Washington (1856–1915)
Elmer Chickering (1815–1915)
Gelatin silver print, circa 1895
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
NPG.79.208