George Washington Carver was one of America's most influential scientists. The fact that he even lived was amazing. Born into slavery in Missouri, as a 6-month-old baby he survived being kidnapped by guerrillas, the loss of his mother, and a life-threatening case of whooping cough. He was raised by a white couple named Moses and Susan Carver. His intense curiosity led him to become a plant scientist. By his thirties, he had a good position at an Iowa college and was becoming famous. But a letter from Booker T. Washington, a black educator in Alabama, persuaded him to give that up and move to Tuskegee, a newly formed school for black youth, as a teacher.
There he did extensive research on crops that could repair the damage that cotton had done to the soil. Before the Civil War, the southern half of the United States was devoted to growing it - “King Cotton” people called it. It sold in the northern states for a handsome price and could easily be produced with the help of slaves to plant and harvest it. After the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, cotton still reigned in the South. Generations of planting it had stripped the soil of nutrients, making the land practically worthless. Slavery might have been abolished, but farmers, black and white, were still slaves to cotton. Carver was the one largely responsible for breaking the grip that King Cotton held on the South.
Finding over 300 uses for peanuts alone, he persuaded so many people to grow them that by 1917, peanut farming had become a booming industry. His influence earned him the nickname, “The Peanut Man.” The peanut planters asked Carver to speak to them about his findings, and, in spite of their initial prejudice, were so impressed with him that they asked him to represent the Peanut Association before the U. S. Congress, in favor of a tariff protecting the interests of American peanut farmers.
When Carver came to testify, he did not cut an imposing figure. Here was a black man wearing an old suit and a battered hat, and speaking with a high-pitched voice. Was there some mistake? Ignoring their racial comments, Carver began setting up his presentation. “We'll give you ten minutes,” they said. Ten minutes came and went. For over two hours, Carver showed them his products: mock meat and oysters, ice cream, coffee, shoe polish, shaving cream, cheese, pickles and many others, all made from peanuts. When he finished, he received a standing ovation! Thanks to Carver's persuasive testimony, Congress passed the tariff. But more importantly, he had helped convert thousands of people from ignorance and poverty to self-sufficiency.