For African American History Month: George Washington Carver

George Washington Carver’s graduation photograph.

Wondering who was Iowa State’s first African American graduate?  First African American faculty member?  Well, look no further!  Scholar, scientist, teacher, and former slave George Washington Carver was Iowa State’s first African American graduate (1894) and faculty member.  If after reading this post you’re interested in learning more, we have a variety of resources available both here in the Special Collections Department and online.  These are listed at the end of this post, and includes the George Washington Carver Digital Collection.  The biographical information below has been selected from our finding aid of the George Washington Carver Collection, which is available for research here in the department.

George Washington Carver became one of the nation’s greatest educators and agricultural researchers. He was born in about 1864 (the exact year is unknown) on the Moses Carver plantation in Diamond Grove, Missouri. His father died in an accident shortly before his birth, and when he was still an infant, Carver and his mother were kidnapped by slave raiders. The baby was returned to the plantation, but his mother was never heard from again.

Carver grew to be a student of life and a scholar, despite the illness and frailty of his early childhood. He first enrolled at Simpson College (in Indianola, Iowa). He excelled in art and music, but art instructor Etta Budd, whose father was head of the Iowa State College Department of Horticulture, recognized Carver’s horticultural talents. She convinced him to pursue a career in scientific agriculture and, in 1891, he became the first African American to enroll at Iowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts, which today is Iowa State University.

Through quiet determination and perseverance, Carver soon became involved in all facets of campus life. He was a leader in the YMCA and the debate club. He worked in the dining rooms and as a trainer for the athletic teams. He was captain, the highest student rank, of the campus military regiment. His poetry was published in the student newspaper and two of his paintings were exhibited at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.

Carver pictured as Quartermaster (staff officer of the campus military regiment), from the 1895 Bomb (photographs after page 102).

Over the next two years, as assistant botanist for the College Experiment Station, Carver quickly developed scientific skills in plant pathology and mycology, the branch of botany that deals with fungi. He published several articles on his work and gained national respect. In 1896, he completed his master’s degree and was invited by Booker T. Washington to join the faculty of Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute.

Pictured above in 1928 are Tuskegee Institute President Robert R. Moton, Mrs. Pammel, Louis H. Pammel, and George W. Carver. Carver and Iowa State botany professor Louis Pammel maintained contact after Carver left Iowa State for Tuskegee, and their extensive correspondence can be found online in the George Washington Carver Digital Collection. The originals are located in the Louis Hermann Pammel Papers (RS 13/5/13). Copies are also available in the George Washington Carver Collection (RS 21/7/2).

Carver’s professional work resulted in the creation of 325 products from peanuts, more than 100 products from sweet potatoes and hundreds more from a dozen other plants native to the South. These products contributed to rural economic improvement by offering alternative crops to cotton that were beneficial for the farmers and for the land. During this time, Carver also carried the Iowa State extension concept to the South and created “movable schools,” bringing practical agricultural knowledge to farmers, thereby promoting health, sound nutrition and self-sufficiency.

Curious to learn more about George Washington Carver, and his time here at Iowa State?  You have a few options.  We have a digital collection available online, which contains a selection of materials from our collections (including the George Washington Carver Collection, Louis Hermann Pammel Papers, University Photograph Collection, and others). The Digital Collection includes photographs and correspondence between Carver and his mentor, botany Professor Louis Pammel.  You can also come here to the Special Collections Department and look through our George Washington Carver Collection and the books in our rare book collection.  A list of resources on George Washington Carver is available here, and this includes a link to a listing of books in both the library’s General Collection and here in the Special Collections Department.  Iowa State’s 1894 and 1895 yearbooks, the Bomb, are also available online.

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