George Washington Carver and the Agricultural Experiment Station at the Tuskegee Institute

Today’s blog was written by Mary Kate Eckles, summer intern at the National Archives at College Park and undergraduate student at St. John’s College

George Washington Carver (ca. 1861 or 1864 to January 5, 1943) was one of the United States’ most prominent agricultural scientists, inventors, and humanitarians. Born enslaved during the Civil War Years in Missouri, Carver’s early education was attributed to his former owners who taught him basic reading and writing. Carver attended Simpson College for art and music, and then enrolled at Iowa State Agricultural College to study botany. In 1896, educator Booker T. Washington hired him to run the Agricultural Department at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. In his career, Carver presented at the Chicago’s World Fair in 1893, advised President Theodore Roosevelt and activist Mahatma Gandhi, supported interracial cooperation, and worked for the benefit of  poor farmers of the United States.

George Washington Carver - One of America's Great Scientists (NAID 535694)

George Washington Carver – One of America’s Great Scientists (NAID 535694)

Carver interacted with the federal government in several respects, and has created many records that are found at the National Archives. The RG 164 General Correspondences with State Experiment Stations and Agricultural Colleges, 1888 – 1937 (National Archives Identifier 6928108) series contains Carver’s correspondences with A. C. True, Director of the Office of Experiment Stations and occasionally the acting director and chief clerk. The Office of Experiment Stations had been active since 1888, coordinating with the Department of Agriculture. Its purpose was to distribute federal funds to agricultural researchers across the country. In 1956, the Office of Experiment Stations became the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service.

Letter from George Washington Carver to A. C. True, Dated July 5, 1902 (NAID 6928108)

Letter from George Washington Carver to A. C. True, Dated July 5, 1902 (NAID 6928108)

As well as being the Director of the Agriculture for the Tuskegee Institute, Carver was also the director of one of the experiment stations for the state of Alabama. The experiment station at the Tuskegee Institute was, unfortunately, a one man show. Carver performed all the experiments, did all the writing and administrating himself. Carver’s correspondences with True often contained requests from True to send him the Tuskegee Institute catalog, records from the experimental station, and bulletins on whatever study Carver was working on at the moment. Carver, in return, asked for copies of articles he had written and copies of certain studies for his classes. The experiment station and the Tuskegee Institute were always pressed for cash, so Carver could not always afford to print copies of the needed materials. The Alabama State Legislature controlled funding for the state experiment stations and gave most of its money to the experiment station at Auburn University.

Letter from C. E. Johnston to George Washington Carver. Dated May 20, 1903 (NAID 6928108)

Letter from C. E. Johnston to George Washington Carver. Dated May 20, 1903 (NAID 6928108)

The bulletins that state experiment stations produced for the public were for agricultural researchers, but Carver wanted to reach a wider audience. Carver wanted his bulletins to help the poor farmers of the South. He wrote them in such a way that people with limited schooling could understand them. The experiments he wrote about could always be accomplished by a small farm. The experiments also focused on ways to replenish soil that had been depleted of nutrients by years and years of cotton growth.

Letter from George Washington Carver to A. C. True. Dated October 24, 1903 (NAID 6928108)

Letter from George Washington Carver to A. C. True. Dated October 24, 1903 (NAID 6928108)

During his career, Carver published forty-four bulletins. Each bulletin provided information for farmers, science teachers and included some recipes at the end. The bulletins were extremely popular. Carver left an indelible mark on the scientific community and American history. He died in 1943, and was buried next to Booker T. Washington. His epitaph read “He could have added fortune to fame, but caring for neither, he found happiness and honor in being helpful to the world.”

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