Born into slavery and orphaned as an infant, George Washington Carver defied all odds and became the first Black person to earn a Bachelor of Science degree in 1894. From a young age Carver had a fascination with plants and soil. Experimenting with pesticides and soil amendments, he quickly became known as “the plant doctor” by local farmers and helped many improve the productivity of their crops. After Iowa State University, known as the Iowa State Agricultural School at the time, rejected Carver’s admission because of his race, he attended Simpson College. He studied there for three years before reapplying and being admitted to Iowa State. While at Iowa State, Carver studied Botany and ran the horticulture department’s greenhouse.
Shortly after graduating with a masters in agriculture, Carver went to work with Booker T. Washington at the Tuskegee Institute, a teacher training program, in Alabama. However, Carver’s true passion was not inside of a classroom. He enjoyed spending most of his time in a laboratory which is where he realized the benefits of crop rotation, a method initially developed by indigenous groups. This sustainable practice and Carver’s overwhelming support for it would eventually lead the agricultural economy in the South to flourish.
Carver recommended western farmers to use crop rotation to greatly increase yields of cotton after providing rest years for the soil to regenerate. During these rest years, farmers were to grow sweet potatoes, peanuts, and soybeans in order to conserve the soil. These crops absorb nitrogen from the air which provides nutrients for the soil and are known as nitrogen fixing plants! Not only did Carver’s discovery result in high rates of cotton production, but also an increase in peanuts, and other nitrogen-fixing crops. From the surplus came Carver’s many inventions involving peanuts: lotions, shaving cream, insulation, paper, and flour just to name a few! With the nickname “The Peanut Man,” Carver’s research in soil conservation and the repurposing of peanuts saved the agricultural economy in the South, making Carver the most prevalent Black agriculturalist in American history.