The Peanut Plant and a Black Genius

By Rashad Bell, Nuala Caomhanach

Feb 20 2020

“One reason I never patent my products is that if I did, it would take so much time I would get nothing else done. But mainly I don't want any discoveries to benefit specific favored persons. I think they should be available to all peoples." —George Washington Carver

The peanut is a legume, not a nut. Legumes are flowering plants that bear seeds in pods and have round growths on their roots called nodules, and form a symbiosis with nitrogen-fixing bacteria housed in the nodules. Synonymous with the peanut plant is George Washington Carver. Carver’s legacy, however, is complex and cannot be reduced to a single plant. Born into enslavement in 1866 in Missouri, he would become the most prominent African-American and enigmatic agricultural scientists in the United States. He was a Black scientist who attended white schools and who was friends with some of the most powerful men in America.

So why the peanut? In Reconstruction Era America, African-Americans struggled to make a living across the rural South. Cotton was king (or so the old saying went), but cotton robbed the soil of all its vital nutrients, especially nitrogen. As an agriculturalist, Carver developed hundreds of products using soybeans, peanut, and sweet potato to enable poor Black farmers to revitalize soils depleted of nutrients. Much of his reputation came after he was adopted as a spokesperson by the United Peanut Association of America — although not without some initial internal conflict (he may have been famous, but he was still black). In 1921, Carver went to Washington D.C. on the association's behalf to lobby for a tariff on foreign peanuts. He was supposed to give a brief talk but Carver dazzled members of Congress so much that the tariff was eventually passed. That incident turned Carver into a major national celebrity.

Carver was not politically inclined, but he was one of America's most famous people at a time when African-Americans were all but absent from mainstream American life. Carver’s celebrity did not prevent him from being misrepresented in the public eye for diverse political agendas. On the one hand, for Black Americans Carver was proof of the value of education. On the other hand, many white Americans argued that Carver was proof that Black people could prosper without actively changing the underlying social structure. Carver, as a scientist and artist, remained focused on enabling Black Americans to succeed.

A Closer Look


Vella, C. George Washington Carver: a life. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University
Press. 2015

Grigsby, S. In the garden with Doctor Carver. Chicago, IL: Albert Whitman and Company. 2010

Adair, Gene. George Washington Carver. Black Americans of Achievement series. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1989.

Kremer, Gary. Carver in His Own Words. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1987.

Carver, G. W. How to grow the peanut and 105 ways of preparing it for human consumption. Tuskegee, AL: Tuskegee Institute.1983
-------How to grow the tomato and 115 ways to prepare it for the table. Tuskegee, AL: Tuskegee Institute. 1983
-------Nature's garden for victory and peace. Tuskegee, AL: Tuskegee Institute. 1983

Mackintosh, Barry. George Washington Carver and the Peanut. American Heritage, Vol 28, No. 5. August 1977.

McMurry, Linda O. George Washington Carver. Scientist and Symbol. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.

Tillery, Carolyn. Quick, African-American Heritage Cookbook: Traditional Recipes and Fond Remembrances From Alabama's Reknowned Tuskegee Institute. New Jersey: Birch Lane Press Book, Carol Publishing Group, 1998.

Aliki. A weed is a flower: the life of George Washington Carver. Aladdin; Reprint edition, 1988.

Elliot, L. George Washington Carver: the man who overcame. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall. 1966.

Albus, H. J.  The peanut man: the life of George Washington Carver in story form. Grand Rapids, MI: W. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. 1948

Clark, G. The man who talks with the flowers: the intimate life story of Dr. George Washington Carver. Saint Paul, MN: Macalester Park Publishing Company. 1943.

Imes, G. K. (1943). I knew Carver. Harrisburg, PA: J. Horace McFarland Company.

Carver, G.W. Progressive nature studies. Tuskegee, AL: Tuskegee Institute Print. 1897