As a sixth grader, I didn’t give much thought to the man whose portrait hung in the front hall of my school. In my memory, he’s holding peanuts in his hand, looking calm as I scurried by on my way to class. Of course, I knew he was George Washington Carver. The brass plaque on the painting said so, and that was the name of my school after all.
It would be many years before I learned why my school – and many others – were named after this man. Pretend you don’t know much about him, if you do. I think images can tell a powerful story, so I present four photographs of Carver from our collections. What would you conclude about him just by looking closely? (Hint: Carver is front and center in the group photo.)
I’ll save the captions for the end. What did you think? How would you describe George Washington Carver based on these images?
Scientist? Farmer? Educated man? Maybe you guessed at a few other traits like: intelligent, respected, hardworking, successful.
If you did, you were right, on all counts. He was also a botanist, a painter, an inventor, a writer, and a professor. Carver led the Agricultural Department at Tuskegee Institute for nearly 50 years, in fact, and his innovations in agricultural science helped poor Southern farmers. Roughly thirty years after being born into slavery, he held a master’s degree. His influence was so profound that after his death in 1943, President Franklin D. Roosevelt made him the first African American to have a national monument named for him.
As we mark the birthday today of another much-honored George Washington, I think Carver’s advice to his students is good for all: “When you can do the common things in life in an uncommon way you’ll command the attention of the world.”
1. [George Washington Carver, full-length portrait, seated on steps, facing front, with staff]. Photo by Frances B. Johnston, ca. 1902. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.05633
2. George Washington Carver. Photo by Frances B. Johnston, 1906. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsc.03252
3. George Washington Carver working in a laboratory. 1937. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c36123
4. [George Washington Carver, full-length portrait, standing in field, probably at Tuskegee, holding piece of soil]. Photo by Frances B. Johnston, 1906. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c14302
- Maybe a question lingers: why was he holding peanuts in that portrait in my school? He was very well-known for advocating peanuts and other crops in the South as alternatives to cotton. Read more about George Washington Carver and his innovative ideas.
- George Washington Carver came to the Tuskegee Institute to teach at Booker T. Washington’s request. See more photographs of the Institute, today and during Carver’s time.
- Explore more about African American History Month with events and exhibits sponsored by the Library of Congress and numerous other federal institutions.