African American Inventors

African American Inventors

When asked to identify someone from a list of African American inventors, most of us will effortlessly recognize, maybe even name, George Washington Carver. Carver is most often thought of as a black botanist who worked extensively with peanuts but he did so very much more.

Born into slavery in 1864 near a Missouri town now called Diamond, Carver had a dramatic childhood that included kidnapping in the night by Confederate soldiers that led to the deaths of his mother and sister, an almost fatal bout of whooping cough, a transaction between two white men that involved trading Carver for a horse, and a respiratory illness that left him permanently too weak to work as a field hand. Too feeble for traditional slave labor, he wandered the fields studying the wild plants.

His self-taught knowledge of plants led to his lifelong interest in botany, particularly developing and promoting hardy plants with high protein content that would improve the nutrition level of the diets of many Southern black farming families after the abolition of slavery. He was invited by the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute (now the Tuskegee Institute), founded by Booker T. Washington, to head the school’s agriculture department, where he stayed from 1896 until his death 47 years later, in 1943.

White mentors helped Carver with his early formal education, including an 1891 transfer to the university then known as Iowa State Agricultural College (now Iowa State University), where he was the first black student and, later, the first black member of the faculty.

With keen understanding of the value of education, Carver developed a mobile school, called the Jesup Wagon, that would bring education to the farm. Morris Ketchum Jesup, a financier from New York, funded the project and gave it his name.

Many years of cotton farming had depleted rich Southern soil so Carver encouraged crop rotation to enrich and restore the vital nutrients to the soil. He advocated rotating cotton crops with sweet potatoes, soybeans, and legumes rich in nitrogen. He also compiled hundreds of alternative uses for these food crops to make them even more valuable to their growers.

US President Theodore Roosevelt was a vocal admirer of Carver’s work, as were Franklin Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge. The Crown Prince of Sweden studied agriculture under Carver’s tutelage for several weeks. The most famous black man of his time, Carver’s worldwide fame included membership in England’s Royal Society of Arts.

Carver’s work led him to become known as one of the most prolific African American inventors of all time. His work in education, botany, the arts, and the improvement of racial relations was publicized in a 1941 issue of Time magazine, which referred to him as a “Black Leonardo,” ranking him alongside Italy’s Leonardo da Vinci, one of the greatest inventors of all time.