As the war that had torn a nation apart was coming to its agonizing close, marauders swept through the Missouri countryside. Mary, a young slave girl, was captured by the raiders, along with her sickly infant son, George. The tiny child, near death with whooping cough, was dumped on the side of a ditch, where he was found by a neighbor of Moses Carver. The neighbor had pursued the raiders in hopes of recapturing the slaves and earning the reward of a $300 race horse-a princely sum to pay for a slave girl and her sickly infant. Although the baby was recovered, his mother was never seen again.
As happens with great men, fiction intertwines with fact and sometimes myth is born. So it is with George Washington Carver. To be sure, Carver was at a decided disadvantage—he was black, he was orphaned, and he was brilliant, something the white world wasn’t ready for. To add to these disadvantages, he was also a devout Christian and uncompromising creationist. The postwar South was abuzz with the hope of progress and industrialism. A new century of development hovered around the corner. It was into this climate that an unassuming, soft-spoken “cookstove chemist” blazed into the scientific community, destined either to be a bright star for the New South or a miserable hoax.
Missouri was a border state between North and South where slavery was permitted. Like many landowners who felt they needed extra hands, Moses and Susan Carver—a childless couple in their forties, burdened with the care of nieces and nephews and a large bit of land—acquired a slave, a 13 year-old girl named Mary with a baby named Jim. About 10 years later, in 1864—the exact date isn’t known—another child was born to Mary. She named him George. While slavery is still slavery, it is apparent that, in many ways, the young girl and her children became more family than slaves to the Carvers.
Carver was a sickly child, struggling with persistent bouts of whooping cough and other pulmonary maladies for much of his youth. He was so scrawny that he could ride the trains on a child’s half-fare ticket well into his twenties. Indeed, doctors predicted that the feeble Carver would not live past his twenty-first birthday.
His white foster parents were leaving middle age and Carver’s weak constitution relegated him to the household chores of laundry, cooking, and cleaning. From watching his foster mother, Carver learned the more feminine arts of knitting, crocheting, and sewing. He grew up in an environment of thrift and economy and industry—nothing was wasted, especially time—and everything had a purpose. Carver was an exceptionally bright child and spent most of his free time in the country surrounding the Carver farm, examining plants and insects, treating the maladies of afflicted flora, and collecting his “treasures,” bits of rocks and plants. In his later years, Carver recalled his childhood expeditions:
“As a very small boy exploring the almost virgin woods of the old Carver place, I had the impression someone had just been there ahead of me. Things were so orderly, so clean, so harmoniously beautiful. A few years later in this same woods I was to understand the meaning of this boyish impression. Because I was practically overwhelmed with the sense of some Great Presence. Not only had someone been there. Someone was there.
“Years later when I read in the Scriptures, “In Him we live and move and have our being,” I knew what the writer meant. Never since have I been without the consciousness of the Creator speaking to me….”1William J. Federer, George Washington Carver: His Life & Faith in His Own Words (St. Louis: Amerisearch, 2002), 67.
Though the end of the war formally brought an end to slavery, it did not end the racial division that existed. This was especially apparent in Carver’s haphazard education. Carver’s formal home education consisted of devouring the Blue Backed Speller and little else. Recognizing his potential, Moses and Susan permitted the ten-year-old George to walk 8 miles to nearby Neosho, Missouri, and live there to attend the only “colored” school in the area. It wasn’t long before George outstripped the knowledge of his instructor and set about on a nearly 30-year quest to complete his education. By far, his worst obstacle to overcome was racial prejudice and the accompanying stereotypes that followed an African American—including the myth that blacks had little capacity for scientific learning. To complicate this was Carver’s poverty and personal lack of direction. Yet, the path that George followed is a testimony to God’s goodness and providence. In Neosho, Carver found himself “adopted” yet again, this time by a black midwife and devout member of the Methodist Episcopal church. Mariah Watkins further instilled in George a love for personal piety, hard work, and thrift. And she gave George one of his most cherished possessions—his Bible. When the time came for the teenage George to seek his fortune and education elsewhere, he made his way to Fort Scott, Kansas, only to be driven on to Minneapolis, Kansas, after having witnessed the brutal lynching of a black man. Discouraged and disheartened, George was delighted when he was able to attend the high school in Minneapolis, and he quickly set about to earn his way by establishing his own laundry business and making godly friends. George now filled his free time with painting, reading, needlework, and music. Soon he successfully withstood examination and became a member of the Presbyterian church in Minneapolis.
George now set his sights on a college education. He applied at the nearby Highlands University and was accepted, only to be turned away at the door of the venerable Presbyterian school on account of his color. It would be several years before George would have the courage to pursue a higher education again. Instead, he became one of a handful of blacks to homestead in Kansas. It was through this demanding experience that Carver learned much of the hardships of a poor, black farmer—insights that helped to shape his future calling.
After a series of bumps and starts—including a stint as an editor for a literary group, George made his way to Winterset, Iowa, in 1889. There, encouraged by Christian friends he met in church, Dr. John Milholland and his wife, Helen, George found a renewed desire to complete his education. The Milhollands were so impressed by George’s artistic talent that they insisted that George attend Simpson College, a small Methodist school with an ethnic open door policy, located about 20 miles away in Indianola, Iowa. George enrolled there as an art and music student and was the sole black on campus. He made his living there by running yet another laundry business. He was poor, but well loved by the students and faculty. One of George’s classmates recounted that “in young Carver, as we came to know him, we saw so much beyond the color that we soon ceased to sense it at all.”2Linda O. McMurry, George Washington Carver, Scientist and Symbol (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), 28. George later observed, “They made me believe I was a real human being.”3McMurry, 28. George, the once frail boy, now became an active member of campus life. He played sports, pursued his studies with diligence, and zealously attended the school’s required chapel service and many other non-required religious activities. At Simpson, George found himself surrounded by a supportive community of Christian friends and teachers, most notably his art teacher, Etta Budd. Though Miss Budd was at first skeptical of George’s artistic talent, she soon found that his eye for detail and order made him a better than average artist. In addition to his painting, Carver would bring his needlework and some of his cross-fertilized and grafted plant specimens for Miss Budd to see. Knowing of George’s love for plants and unsure that a nearly 30 year old black man could make a living at art, Miss Budd saw a door of opportunity open up for Carver. Miss Budd’s father was a professor of horticulture at Iowa State University. Miss Budd encouraged Carver to pursue his studies in botany at Iowa State. Carver enrolled the next year.
As the only black student at Iowa State, he was a bit disconcerted at first. But he soon proved himself a diligent student and made friendships along the way. In one account, Carver’s friends encouraged him to enter one of his paintings in a Cedar Rapids exhibit featuring Iowa’s artists. Carver was reluctant because of the cost, but his friends would hear none of his arguments. They “kidnapped” him, bought him a new suit, and gave him a ticket to Cedar Rapids, where Carver’s “Yucca and Cactus” won the high honor of representing Iowa at the World Expo in Chicago. However, as an agriculturalist, Carver gained a reputation for plant breeding, cross-fertilization, and grafting. His collection of cross-fertilized plants—especially his amaryllis—earned him notoriety among the botany instructors. He completed his courses of study at Iowa State, eventually earning a Master of Agriculture Degree. In 1896, Carver was admitted to the full-time faculty.
From the outside, Carver’s early life seemed disconnected and lacking in focus. Yet as time went on, Carver felt a profound sense of calling. As historian Linda O. McMurry writes, “Carver firmly believed that God had given him unusual talents because of a divine plan for his life. His experiences seem to support this belief, for he had indeed proved his intuitive abilities in a number of fields—from art to botany—even before receiving much formal training. To Carver there was no explanation of his remarkable skills except his close rapport with the Creator.”4McMurry, 44.
Though Carver spent relatively little time with people of his own color during this period, he had a deep burden to help what he termed “my people.” In a letter to the Milhollands he cried out,
“Oh how I wish the people would awake out of their lethargy and come out body and soul for Christ.
“I am so anxious to get out and be doing something….The more my ideas develop, the more beautiful and grand seems that plan that I have laid out to pursue, or rather the one God has destined for me.
“It is really all I see in a successful life. And let us hope that in the mysterious ways of the Lord, he will bring about these things we all so much hope for…, and I seen (sic) by one of the late southern papers that one of their strongest men advocate a broader system of education, and lays down a plan very much like the one I have….
And the more I study and pray over it, the more I am convinced it is the right coarse (sic) to pursue…. Let us pray that the Lord will completely guide us in all things, and that we may gladly be led by Him….”5Federer, 23.
This strong man was Booker T. Washington and the system of education was one that empowered the black community with education and honor through diligence, hard work, and useful service.
In 1896, George’s infant hopes were realized. He received a letter from Booker T. Washington, president of The Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, inviting the young professor to join their staff. Washington wrote,
“Tuskegee Institute seeks to provide education—a means for survival to those who attend. Our students are poor, often starving. They travel miles of torn roads, across years of poverty. We teach them to read and write, but words cannot fill stomachs. They need to learn how to plant and harvest crops.
“I cannot offer you money, position, or fame. The first two you have. The last, from the place you now occupy, you will no doubt achieve. These things I now ask you to give up.
“I offer you in their place—work—hard, hard work—the challenge of bringing people from degradation, poverty, and waste to full manhood.”6Federer, 24.
This, it seems, was the point to which all of Carver’s life was rushing. He farmed—he knew the hardships. He was poor—he knew the hunger. He fought for an education—he knew its value. He economized. He abhorred waste. And most importantly, Carver knew that nothing escaped the providence and purpose of God. Finally, the years of his wandering led Carver to his calling. Carver responded to Washington, “[I]t has always been the one ideal of my life to be of the greatest good to the greatest number of my people possible and to this end have I been preparing myself for these many years.”7McMurry, 43.
Carver spent over 40 years at Tuskegee. There he pursued his studies in botany, taught classes, collected specimens, and performed experiments. Carver operated a “mobile” school for a while, until funding ceased (an all too common occurrence at Tuskegee). He prepared 44 bulletins filled with practical help for poor southern farmers.8www.tuskegee.edu/#8Global/story He lectured at white colleges, black institutions, before Congress, at YMCA summer camps, and in various churches. But perhaps more lasting than Carver’s bulletins or experiments was the spiritual influence Carver had over the students at the Institute. At the request of several students, Carver taught a Bible study in his room on Sundays in between the dinner hour and the evening chapel service for six or seven students. Carver recounts, “We began at the first of the Bible and attempted to explain the Creation story in the light of natural and revealed religion and geological truths. Maps, charts, plants and geological specimens were used to illustrate the work.”9Federer, 34. Within three months, attendance at Carver’s Bible study was as high as 114.
Carver’s Christian witness was not confined to Tuskegee, however. In 1921, Carver was asked to address the U.S House Ways and Means Committee in Washington, D.C., about a proposed tariff on imported peanuts. “George expounded on the many potential uses of the peanut to improve the economy of the South. Initially given only ten minutes to speak, the committee became so enthralled that the Chairman said, “Go ahead, Brother. Your time is unlimited!” George’s address was an hour and forty-five minutes. At the conclusion of his speech, the Committee Chairman asked:
“Dr. Carver, how did you learn all of these things?”
“From an old book.”
“What book?” asked the Chairman.
Carver replied, “The Bible.”
The Chairman inquired, “Does the Bible tell about peanuts?”
“No, Sir,” Dr. Carver replied, “but it tells about the God who made the peanut. I asked Him to show me what to do with the peanut, and He did.”10Federer, 36.
Of course, Carver’s faith met with criticism. One of his most public critiques came after Carver gave a speech to the Women’s Board of Domestic Missions of the Reformed Church in America. Speaking to the crowd of 500, Carver told them,
“God is going to reveal [scientific] things to us He never revealed before if we put our hands in His. No books ever go into my laboratory. The thing I am to do and the way of doing it are revealed to me. I never have to grope for methods. The method is revealed to me the moment I am inspired to create something new. Without God to draw aside the curtain, I would be helpless.”11Federer, 53.
The response from the New York Times was scathing. An editorial titled “Men of Science Never Talk That Way” lamented Carver’s methods and his “complete lack of the scientific spirit.” “Real chemists,” read the article, “do not scorn books out of which they can learn what other chemists have done and they do not ascribe their successes, if they have any, to ‘inspiration.’”12New York Times, 19 November 1924.
Carver responded. He catalogued lists and lists of scientists, books, and journals which had provided him guidance and insight into his study. Carver made it clear in his letter that “[I]nspiration is never at variance with information; in fact, the more information one has, the greater will be the inspiration.” In a bold answer to the prevailing evolutionary leanings of the time—the Scopes trial was just months away—his letter continues, “I thoroughly understand that there are scientists to whom this world is merely the result of chemical forces or material electrons. I do not belong to this class.”13Federer, 55. The New York Times, however, refused to print Carver’s rebuttal. So Carver’s friends took it upon themselves to circulate his response, which was eventually printed by other supportive newspapers.
Carver received floods of letters from friends and supporters after the New York Times critique. He wrote to a friend later that he did “feel badly” after the incident. “…[N]ot that the cynical criticism was directed at me, but rather at the religion of Jesus Christ.” Carver concludes his letter reaffirming his Biblical perspective on his retractors’ opinions: “I am not interested in science or any thing else that leaves God out of it.”14Federer, 56.
Carver, however, did not let the rantings of journalists derail him from his tasks at Tuskegee. And Carver’s early lessons in thrift and economy served him well at the Institute. Carver sincerely believed that God did not waste anything in His creation. Man had a responsibility to honor God by not wasting what could be put to perfectly good use. While Carver is perhaps most well known for his research with the peanut and sweet potato, his ultimate goal was to do whatever he could to help “the furthest man down”; often that meant the poor farmers of the South. Carver knew these farmers did not have access to high-tech farming machinery or expensive fertilizers. He sought to improve the soil on these impoverished farms without exorbitant expense. In this way, Carver was ahead of his time. He promoted and instructed farmers in the use of organic fertilizers, many made from agricultural waste products, and crop rotation methods that used plants like cowpeas to replenish the soil. Carver’s no-waste philosophy led him to experiment with alternative food products, like milk and meat substitutes derived from peanuts. And Carver’s abhorrence of waste moved him to investigate unusual uses for waste products. Out of wood shavings, Carver helped to develop a synthetic marble. And from cotton stalks, Carver produced seventeen different paving materials—some of which were used to build a runway used well into the 1960s.
However, there is some dispute among scientists and historians as to how much Carver really accomplished. Contrary to popular opinion, Carver did not invent peanut butter.15Barry Mackintosh. George Washington Carver and the Peanut: New Light on a Much-loved Myth. www.americanheritage.com/articles/magazine/ah/1977/5/1977 His actual uses for the peanut number around 100, not the typically reported 300. He has only 2 patents for his products. Much of the scientific community considered his methods of research unorthodox and old-fashioned. Many of his scientific formulas were never written down, and therefore almost impossible to reproduce. Carver eschewed popular modern methods of farming technology for a more agrarian approach to poverty and hunger. His bulletins dealt primarily with practical farming tips, like when to plant tomatoes, how to get the most out of a sweet potato, and how to use acorns as a livestock feed, rather than with the earth-shattering discoveries that the western world clamored for in its industrial fervor. Yet Carver remains a scientific and cultural icon. Why? Some speculate that it is because Carver bridged the gap between scientific education and the poor black communities of the South. Some see Carver’s rise to preeminence—from slave to scientist—a sort of rags to riches story. Others credit Carver with single-handedly reviving the agricultural progress of the depleted southern states. Carver himself gives us perhaps the best answer:
“The secret of my success? It is simple. It is found in the Bible, ‘In all thy ways acknowledge Him and He shall direct thy paths.’”16Federer, 86.
|William J. Federer, George Washington Carver: His Life & Faith in His Own Words (St. Louis: Amerisearch, 2002), 67.
|Linda O. McMurry, George Washington Carver, Scientist and Symbol (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), 28.
|New York Times, 19 November 1924.
|Barry Mackintosh. George Washington Carver and the Peanut: New Light on a Much-loved Myth. www.americanheritage.com/articles/magazine/ah/1977/5/1977