Located at 1212 West Montgomery Road on the campus of Tuskegee University in Tuskegee, Alabama is the George Washington Carver Museum. As a component of the Tuskegee National Historic Site, the museum is managed by the National Parks Service (NPS). Its mission is to honor the request of agricultural genius and inventor George Washington Carver who, according to the National Parks Service’s website, “wanted the fruits of his life’s work on display at the museum.”
George Washington Carver was born to Mary, circa 1864, in Diamond Grove, Missouri. Because Mary was enslaved and owned by Moses and Susan Carver, so was her child, George; there is no specific record of his birth. In 1865, Mary and George were kidnapped and though they were able to locate George in Arkansas, Mary was never found.
He lived with the Carver couple until 1876 when he left to attend Neosho Colored School in Neosho, Missouri. Two years later, he left for Fort Scott, Kansas and for the next several years, he traveled between Missouri and Kansas. In both states, he worked various jobs and attended several schools to advance his learning.
Since a young boy, George Washington Carver had health issues that rendered him sickly and frail. However, he enjoyed studying nature, art and music and proved exceptional in growing plants. In 1891, he entered Iowa State College, from where he graduated in 1894 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Agriculture. Two years later, he earned his Master of Science degree in Agriculture. His attainment of this credential in 1896 rendered him, according to the NPS site, as “the first and, at the time, only African American with an advanced degree in agricultural science.”
Later that year, Carver accepted the position of Director of Agriculture at Tuskegee Institute, presently known as Tuskegee University. A historically Black institution of higher learning, Tuskegee Institute was founded by author and orator Booker T. Washington, who promoted vocational education as a means to survive and thrive in American society. Accordingly, agricultural sciences was integral to the mission of the Institute. Carver taught agricultural science courses and conducted experiments in Milbank Hall. Additionally, he developed ancillary services for African-American farmers and homemakers. One of these services was his outreach via the Jesup Agricultural Wagon.
In 1906, Carver and Thomas Monroe Campbell devised the Jesup Agricultural Wagon, which was utilized for Carver to visit local communities in the South. His mission was to teach crop rotation, home décor, nutrition and proper hygiene to impoverished farmers, a majority of who were Black.
Tuskegee Institute President Dr. Frederick D. Patterson requested the institute’s board of trustees to approve the development of a museum honoring Carver’s incredible accomplishments in agricultural science, further advancement of African-Americans and vast contributions to society. The board agreed, approving in 1938, and development of the museum began underway. The George Washington Carver Museum was originally housed in the former school laundry on the Tuskegee campus.
The site was remodeled due to great support from industrialist, automobile innovator and philanthropist Henry Ford, who greatly admired Carver. Known as “The Carver Museum” for short, it, according to NPS, contained George Washington Carver’s “extensive collections of native plants, minerals, birds and vegetables; his products from the peanut, sweet potato and clays; and his numerous paintings, drawings, and textile art.”
His extensive work also included crop rotation, natural fertilizer use and recycling soil enrichment. Carver’s stellar research on feed grains, seeds and soils led to greater production of food and a better yield of cash crops. He was able to create new products from plants, including cowpeas, peanuts, soybeans and sweet potatoes, that he studied. Carver’s creative brilliance prompted the National Park Service to champion, “His plant hybridization, recycling, and use of locally available technology was ahead of his time. Carver’s work on synthetic substitutes for petroleum products and paints was of great interest to industry. He also patented several inventions. All Carver’s efforts were geared towards increasing African-American farmers’ economic independence.”
Completed in 1941, the George Washington Carver Museum opened on the campus of Tuskegee Institute and was formally dedicated by Mr. and Mrs. Henry Ford. Embedded in its floor are three auto parts comprised of a “soybean plastic” Carver helped to create. Home of his last laboratory, it was replete, as shared by NPS, with his “geological and mycological (fungus) specimens made over a lifetime. Carver’s artwork and crafts were also displayed in the museum. Mounted regional bird specimens and giant vegetables preserved in jars that he used as ‘show and tell’ at farm and county fair demonstrations became part of the museum.” The Carver Museum highlighted George Washington Carver’s experiments as well.
Sadly, George Washington Carver passed away on January 5, 1943 from anemia complications that resulted from a fall he suffered down the stairs in his home. He was about seventy-nine years old. Having never married and with no children, he bequeathed his estate, valued to more than $60,000 (approximately $905,000 in 2020) to the George Washington Carver Foundation. He is buried on the campus of Tuskegee University next to Booker T. Washington. Revered for his humanism, his tombstone reads, “He could have added fortune to fame, but caring for neither, he found happiness and honor in being helpful to the world.”
In 1977, the home of Booker T. Washington and the George Washington Carver Museum were donated to the National Park Service by Tuskegee University. In 1979, much of the Carver collection was donated to the NPS by Tuskegee in 1979.
Since, George Washington Carver’s influence has been immense. There are numerous tributes, such as schools and memorials such as the George Washington Carver National Monument in Newton County, Missouri. Institutions named in his honor include the G.W. Carver Interpretive Museum in Dothan, Alabama; George Washington Carver Museum and Cultural Center in Phoenix Arizona; and George Washington Carver Genealogy Center in Austin Texas.
The George Washington Carver Museum also has educational outreach programming, which includes lesson plans for educators. Its exhibits include cosmetics and medicines made from resources of Carver and the Jesup Agricultural Wagon.
It is open, Monday through Saturday, from 9:00 am to 4:30 pm. Tours at the Carver Museum are self-guided. Parking is available and souvenirs to commemorate your visit may be purchased at the onsite gift store.