George Washington Carver

c. 1865 - 1943
by David F. Coppedge

You have to be someone to get a National Monument named after you, and George Washington Carver was someone – not in his own estimation, but by universal acclaim. His own estimation of himself was summed up in his words, “Without my Savior, I am nothing.” He sought his Creator for guidance in all things, and gave God the credit for all his discoveries. Rightly does a National Monument deserve to be named for him, because his story is an inspiration to all Americans. It is one of overcoming odds and serving one’s fellow man, achieving greatness by good works, and devoting oneself to serving others. It is a great American success story for which black Americans, and all Americans, can justly find inspiration.

For an example of doing science the Genesis way, it would be hard to find a better example than George Washington Carver. God told Adam and Eve to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and the fowl of the air and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Genesis 1:28). Liberal environmentalists hate this verse because they misunderstand it. It does not mean to run roughshod over the land, exploiting it for selfish purposes. It means to manage it as stewards of the Creator, for He alone is the one who owns “the cattle on a thousand hills … for the earth and its fullness are mine” (Psalm 50:10-12), and “the earth is the Lord’s, and those who dwell therein” (Psalm 24:1). Carver knew that “It is He who has made us, and not we ourselves; we are His people, and the sheep of His pasture” (Psalm 100:3).

Since He is the Creator and Owner, we are mere stewards, accountable to Him. Now it goes without saying that a good steward has to know the state of affairs of what he is managing. So what does the Genesis Mandate mean? It means, in effect, “do science.” Science was the very first occupational career the Creator gave to the only beings He had made in His image, endowed with personality, intellect, will, and emotions. Science (the understanding of the world) and environmental stewardship (the responsible management of it) are what dominion is all about. Implicit in this view is that the world is a vast puzzle to solve, an endless store of natural wonders to explore. It was in this spirit that Carver humbly asked, “Mr. Creator, why did you make the peanut?” then went to discover over 300 uses for it. But we get ahead of our story.

Carver’s story is all the more remarkable because of the obstacles he had to overcome. He was born practically a non-person in Civil War times, the nameless son of poor slave parents on a Missouri farm around 1864 or 1865 (as best as can be determined, since no records of his birth exist). His father had been trampled to death by a team of oxen before young George had any memories of him. His mother and sister had been taken by slave raiders in the night, never to be seen again. Barely six months old, the boy and his older brother Jim were adopted by German immigrants, Moses and Susan Carver. Jim was the stronger one; little George was short, weak, sickly, shy, stuttering and nearly mute. Who would have expected great things from this unfortunate child? Yet the Carvers noticed special aptitudes in him – curiosity, keen observational skills, and love of nature. To this, they added discipline, hard work, and respect for God’s holy book, the Bible. And they gave him a name to live up to: George Washington.

The Carvers were too poor to give him much more than that, but it proved sufficient; little George was ready to face a world of prejudice and start from the bottom up without complaining. At age ten, with a silver dollar and eight pennies in his pocket, Carver walked alone the ten miles to the nearest colored boys school in Neosho. He would find a barn to sleep in at night, and do any odd jobs a neighbor might need, from washing dishes and cooking to planting, to pay for food and tuition. Abuse from other kids or white folks did not break his spirit. George knew how to pray. He always sensed the Lord was with him, and he knew that his loving heavenly Father would take care of him according to the promise of Proverbs 3:6, “In all thy ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct thy paths”—George’s favorite Bible verse. Besides, the trees and plants were too interesting to make him self-conscious over his own hardships.

In all thy ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct thy paths (Proverbs 3:6)

Passing each test and scaling each hurdle, George won the hearts of classmates in a Kansas high school. He developed many interests in which he excelled. Those who know him primarily for his achievements in agricultural science might be surprised to learn that George Washington Carver was a singer, artist, piano player and debater. His spiritual aptitude took root in his fellowship with the YMCA. Throughout his life, he felt the sting of racial prejudice, even witnessing a lynching of another black man by the KKK. The white folk who knew George stood up for him when racial slurs came at him. He remained friendly, open, and diligent in everything he did, rising to the top of his class with high grades. He was accepted to Highland University on a scholarship.

Upon arriving at Highland in Kansas, he was in for another major disappointment. He entered the President’s office and announced that he was George Washington Carver, the one who had received the President’s own letter of acceptance. “Young man, I’m afraid there has been a mistake. You failed to inform us you were colored. We do not take colored students here at Highland.” The President would not be moved by the fact that George had spent everything he had to come. His skin was just not the right color. The feeling of dejection can only be imagined, as he walked around the strange town wondering what to do next. He never felt more lonely in his life. Again, he prayed. He decided he would find a college that would take him. He would work, save his money, and he would study hard, and God helping him, he would succeed.

It would not be easy. He took a homestead in west Kansas and endured a blizzard alone in his cabin, and more loneliness. Then word of a new college that would take coloreds came to his attention, and at age 26, he spent the ten dollars he made from selling his cabin and land, traveled to Indianola, and entered Simpson College. The rest is history. Though now older than most of the students, and seemingly the only black student, George rapidly excelled and made high grades. He transferred to Iowa State and became the first black man there to earn a bachelor’s degree. Even prejudiced white folk made way for this rising star. He was invited to teach, and earned a master’s degree in agriculture in 1896. His work on plants and plant diseases was getting recognized. It came to the attention of Booker T. Washington.

Booker T. Washington, a friend of Abraham Lincoln, had founded Tuskegee Institute fifteen years earlier as a place to provide blacks an opportunity for higher education. He gave Carver a strange proposition that a mercenary man would have snubbed with utter disdain:

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.

With a good deal of prayer and soul searching, Carver accepted.

Artwork by J. Beverly Greene commissioned for this biography. All rights reserved.

Upon arriving in Alabama, George Carver was stunned to find he had no lab, no books, no equipment, no helpers, and no curriculum. He would have to build the entire department from scratch. He was even expected to share a room with another faculty member. On top of that, he was expected to raise chickens and do other tasks he did not particularly care for, and the students were not that interested in learning what he had to teach. But Carver had learned to take life as it came and make the most of it. It was never easy; his relationship with Booker T. was often strained, the latter trying to keep the institution from going broke, and the former more visionary than resources permitted. But they needed each other, and complemented each other, as iron sharpens iron (a fact George never fully realized till after Booker’s death).

So from the ground up at Tuskegee, George set to work with the equivalent of two loaves and a few fishes, handing them over to the Lord to multiply them. Improvising a lab with old bottles and spare parts, and a microscope donated by his Iowa friends, he slowly got his balky students on track and began spinning a list of achievements that overflowed by the bushels. His classes did experiments with sweet potatoes, trying to increase crop yields. From five bushels an acre to ten, then twenty and thirty … they reached eighty bushels per acre, a feat thought impossible by seasoned farmers. His all-time record was 266 bushels per acre, with the proper cultivation and fertilization. Carver’s abilities in agriculture must have seemed like magic. He experimented with crop rotation and found ways to replenish the soil. His list of useful products from common crops began to grow, including delicious meals from cowpeas and industrial products from sweet potatoes. As a ministry of help to poor farmers, he and his students put a classroom on a wagon. They traveled from farm to farm, showing farmers how they could improve their yields. George Washington Carver was poised to save the South from the devastation of the Civil War to new dangers on the horizon.

Southern farmers, by tradition, were stuck in a cotton rut. Carver realized that not only did this deplete the soil, but the devastating boll weevil was slowly working its way east from Mexico and Texas at about 100 miles per year. He realized its arrival in the South would wipe out the cotton economy. Peanuts and other legumes, he demonstrated, replenished the soil. Not only that, they were extremely versatile and healthy. Grudgingly at first, the farmers took his advice to try growing the silly goobers, doubtful that anyone would buy them. Carver tried to convince them that peanuts were an ideal food source. Taking his cue from Genesis, where God had said to Adam and the animals, “I have given every green plant for food” (Genesis 1:29-30, 2:9), he figured there must be more there than meets the eye. The threat of the boll weevil forced some farmers to take his advice and grow peanuts, but some became angry when they could not find a market for them. This drove Carver to launch a series of amazing discoveries.

As he would tell the story later, he went out to pray (as was his daily practice), and asked God why He made the universe. The Lord replied that was a mighty big question for a puny man. Carver tried a smaller question, why did you make man? As God kept narrowing the scope of his inquiry, he finally tried, “Mr. Creator, why did you make the peanut?” With that, the Lord was satisfied, and told him to go into his lab and find out. In a Spirit-filled rush of discovery, Carver separated peanuts into their shells, skins, oils and meats and found all kinds of amazing properties and possibilities.

Most of us have heard this one of Carver’s many claims to fame, that he discovered over 300 uses for the peanut, but have you ever seen the list? You can find it on websites, but here are a few samples for the pure amazement of what came out of that humble Tuskegee lab: soap, cooking oil, milk, rubber, glue, insecticide, malaria medicine, flour, salve, paint, cosmetics, paper, fertilizer, paving material and (of course) peanut butter, peanut brittle, peanut clusters, and dozens of other food products. He amazed the faculty and students one day by serving an entire meal – appetizer, main course, side dishes, beverage and dessert – out of peanuts: soup, salad, milk, coffee, bread, mock chicken, peanut ice cream, and a variety of candies and cookies. His peanut milk was indistinguishable from the dairy kind. Farmers no longer had to worry about having a market for peanuts!

In 1921, the United Peanut Association of America, now a thriving group of farmers thanks to Carver’s help, sent him to Congress to testify about a tariff bill. The weary Congressmen, bored from days of other tariff arguments, allotted him ten minutes. Two hours later, their eyes were still bulging from his displays of products he had made. His lively and sometimes humorous presentation had them spellbound. The law passed easily.

Peanuts were just one of many plants Carver’s magic with chemistry transformed into useful products. He invented 35 products from the velvet bean and 118 from the sweet potato. How many of these things do you have around the house? –adhesive, axle grease, bleach, briquettes, buttermilk, chili sauce, ink, instant coffee, linoleum, mayonnaise, meat tenderizer, metal polish, paper, plastic, paint, pavement, peanut butter, shaving cream, shoe polish, synthetic rubber, talcum powder, and wood stain. These and many other products Carver produced from plant materials. George Washington Carver became the father of a new branch of applied science called agricultural chemistry, sometimes called “chemurgy.” The extent of his discoveries in this field are breathtaking, and unlikely to be surpassed by any one person again.

Just a few of these products could have made a man rich, but Carver made them available freely. As a servant of God, he felt the Creator should have the credit for putting all this richness into the plants He had made. Carver did not seek fame, but his work brought him world-wide renown; Teddy Roosevelt visited him at Tuskegee and said, “There’s no more important work than what you are doing right here.” He never made much money in his 40+ years at Tuskegee. Driven by the needs of those he served there, he turned down a lucrative offer to work for Thomas Edison. He gave generously from his meager assets. Despite a high-pitched voice he inherited from a bout with whooping cough in childhood, he was a popular speaker. Projecting a visage of integrity, with rhetorical intensity characteristic of a black preacher, Carver inspired the young to rise above their hardships, as he had, and make their life count.

All who knew George Washington Carver were impressed by his spirituality. Carver would often rise at 4:00 in the morning and go into his favorite woods to pray. Each day he would ask, “Lord, what do you want me to do today?“ and then do it. The goodness of God and the richness of creation was often on his lips. He said, “I love to think of nature as an unlimited broadcasting station, through which God speaks to us every hour, if we will only tune in.” Some misunderstood his remarks about seeking the guidance of God, and caricatured him as seeking Divine inspiration in the science lab, but Carver’s science was sound. He explained to those who misrepresented his views (claiming he thought books were unnecessary) that of course he studied books; what he meant was that “once the books are mastered by the scientist the next step beyond the books requires inspiration” (Wellman, p. 188).

Without dispute, the Genesis account of creation was a foundation for Carver’s scientific approach. Did he take it literally? Responding to news of the Scopes trial in 1925, Carver affirmed his belief that God had created man directly, but allowed for some transitional forms God might have made between other species. Another source quotes him as describing a plant having existed for millions of years. We must remember, however, that voices for a Biblical doctrine of creation were few and weak during the early twentieth century. Both churches and colleges often accommodated what the scientists were telling them about the age of the earth without questioning the assumptions. Piltdown Man and other false claims were still unexposed, and they didn’t have evidences that have only recently come to light that overturn the commonly-accepted ideas of his day. But “Carver never hesitated to confess his faith in the God of the Bible, and attributed all his success and ability to God,” says Henry Morris (Men of Science, Men of God, p. 81). The fact that God had created plants and called them good provided the impetus for Carver to do his outstanding science.

There are two ways to respond to discrimination: speak out against evil, or overcome evil with good. Both are necessary, but Carver focused on the latter. He did not have a prejudicial bone in his body, even though he was a target of racial bigotry on many occasions. Rather than join the ranks of the protesters, he quietly demonstrated that a man’s worth is not to be judged by the color of his skin, but the content of his character. And what character George Washington Carver had! He won the Roosevelt Medal in 1939, with the inscription, “To a scientist humbly seeking the guidance of God and a liberator to men of the white race as well as the black.” Entering glory after a long and productive life, he was given the epitaph, “He could have added fortune to fame, but caring for neither, he found happiness and honor in being helpful to the world.”

Drop by George Washington Carver National Monument sometime when passing through Missouri. And don’t forget to pack some peanut butter sandwiches.

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