Born into poverty, orphaned almost immediately after birth, and growing up in the South during the time of Reconstruction, he shared the common burden of thousands of post-Civil War freed slaves. But his response to these hardships has set him apart as someone to be remembered: he chose to give something, no matter what the cost, to other human beings. Despite overwhelming odds, he braved the trials of despair and hopelessness and has become known as one of America's great men—an inspiring lecturer, teacher, and scientist, a lover of truth in the midst of prejudice.
His life began in Missouri, on the farm of a relatively prosperous couple named Moses and Susan Carver. The Carvers' slave, Mary, gave birth to her second son, George, just as the Civil War was coming to an end; George's father, rumored to be a slave on a nearby plantation, died in a logging accident that same year. George was a frail child who suffered from whooping cough, and Mary would tend to him before the fire in their one-room cabin. When a band of Confederate raiders invaded the Carvers' land and kidnaped Mary soon after George's birth, the couple was devastated and determined to raise George and his brother Jim as if they were their own children.
Susan took George under her wing, probably because George's delicate constitution prevented him from engaging in many of Moses' farm chores. She taught him to wash clothes, cook, and sew, invaluable skills that would serve him well during his long life. Moses, an independent-minded man of strong ethics, instilled in George a healthy sense of self-discipline and taught him how to care for animals. Whenever George had a free moment, though, he would disappear into the woods to collect rocks and bugs and tend to a "secret garden" he kept there. Early on, he distinguished himself as especially talented with plants, and sometimes neighbors would ask him to take care of their sick plants when they couldn't nurse them back to health themselves.
While still very young, George recognized in himself a burning intelligence and curiosity about life and the world. Later he would write about this period in his life:
"I wanted to know the name of every stone and flower and insect and bird and beast. I wanted to know where it got its color, where it got its life—but there was no one to tell me. I do not know how I learned to read and write, but I did in some way, thanks to the Carvers. My only book was an old Webster's Elementary Spelling Book. I knew it almost by heart. I sought the answers to my questions from the spelling book, but all in vain."
Frustrated by the discrimination of the local church school, which refused to educate blacks, George made the only choice he could: he set out for the school for blacks located eight miles away in Neosho.
He was only ten years old when he left home. He did not know where he would live, or how he would eat, and he arrived in Neosho alone and willing to starve himself to satisfy his hunger for knowledge. George would continue to wander in search of an education until his twenty-fifth year, sometimes living with couples who shared with him a reverence for life, and sometimes scraping by on his own; his skills at washing and pressing would serve him well during these years, earning him enough money to eat, if nothing more. Throughout these ramblings he confronted the poverty, discrimination, and violence experienced by black people all across the South, fleeing from at least one town in fear of his life.
By 1890, George was a discouraged young man. Although he yearned for knowledge and meaning, it seemed nearly impossible for a black man to receive anything more than an elementary school education. Within him was growing a greater awareness of his need to serve his people, who suffered from ignorance and extreme want, and who had constitutional freedom but not the means to attain economic liberation. Determined to enter college despite the odds, he applied to Simpson College in Iowa and was, to his delight, accepted.