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.
At Simpson College, George continued to suffer the hardships to which he had grown accustomed. He lived in an abandoned shack, given to him by the President of the College, and salvaged a stove from the dump to cook his meals, which he would eat while sitting on an old crate. Yet the other students of the college, all of whom were white, looked up to George as a model of humor and kindness, visiting him and asking advice on matters both academic and personal. He accepted the indignities of racial prejudice without responding with bitterness, and would later be remembered for little acts of selflessness like crossing to the other side of the street so his white woman friends would not have to greet him publicly. These incidents caused George much grief, and he bore them with quiet resignation.
At Simpson College, George dived into art with a passion, and he showed an undeniable brilliance in his painting. He would continue to paint throughout his long life, exhibiting his artwork in both the North and the South, and more than one close friend received an original painting as a treasured gift. But despite his love for art, which he called a means to lift "souls beyond the sordid things of life," George Washington Carver felt unable to commit his life to it. He felt that he could neither earn his living at it, nor really satisfy himself through art alone. Seeking a more practical degree in agricultural science, he transferred to the Iowa Agricultural College at Ames in 1891.
At Iowa State, George spent many hours poised over plant specimens or walking through the woods, discovering that "each created thing is an indispensable factor in the great whole, and one in which no other factor will fit exactly as well." Doing his classwork with the used pencil stubs given to him by friends, and subsisting on leftovers from the school cafeteria, George studied incessantly, earning a Master's Degree in five years. By 1896, he had acquired a reputation as the best plant breeder at Iowa and knew that his position on the permanent faculty of the University was guaranteed.
But George Carver could not choose for himself the life of a cloistered University professor. In 1896, Booker T. Washington asked him to join the faculty of the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama, an all-black college established with the aim of educating the blacks of the South so they could leave the endless cycle of ignorance and poverty. George felt that this was the opportunity to serve his people for which he had been preparing his entire life.
Booker T. Washington, the son of a mulatto slave and a white man, had worked himself through school as a coal miner and later as a janitor, and in his early twenties had begun to work with the Virginia-based Hampton Institute as a teacher of vocational education to colored Americans. He had founded Tuskegee in 1881, at the age of 24, on the conviction that the integration of blacks into a dominant white society depended on their ability to become a competitive economic force. He felt that the capacity of blacks to "endure wrong, to withstand temptations, to economize, to acquire and use skill" could be honed through diligent mental and manual work.
At Tuskegee, George quickly confronted the awesome responsibilities that his office would entail. In charge of directing the Institute's Experiment Station, administering the farm's livestock, maintaining the landscaping of the school grounds, teaching and supervising courses, and performing all of the tasks required as Department head, George often found himself stretched to the limit of his endurance. He quickly discovered that other faculty members did not share his enthusiasm for his way of doing things, and he entered into heated battles with at least one other administrator who refused to obey his orders. He suffered immensely from these encounters, which injured his sense of pride and held up his work. Yet he pursued his responsibilities with vigor, refusing to give in to the despair to which he could easily have fallen prey.
As a researcher, George tried to find economical ways for the "man lowerest down" to improve the quality of his life. The typical "black belt" farmer had only his land and his labor with which to work, and George concentrated on reducing the farmers' economic dependence on store-bought goods by finding alternatives to flour, sugar, starch, coffee, milk, and other household goods. He developed hundreds of recipes for the peanut, sweet potato, and cowpea, from which the poor farmer could derive the essential nutrients he required, and he found ways to convert common soil into whitewashes and woodstains which could work wonders on the walls of a house. He also developed more efficient methods of crop cultivation and experimented with breeding strains of cotton which resisted the devastation of the Southern boll weevil.
Much of the success of George's outreach to farmers hinged on his almost magical ability to teach. He did not attempt to demonstrate his superior knowledge about the subjects he studied, but merely tried to transmit what he knew simply and directly. As a result, farmers could understand what he had to tell them and felt more comfortable in adopting the methods which he described. The Farmer's Conferences and classes that he organized enabled him to come into contact with hundreds of farmers throughout the area, and to apply his knowledge to the needs of individual farmers.
In the classroom, George became legendary for being able to draw students' attention like a magnet. His sense of humor would enliven classroom discussions, and he would endeavor that each student work to their fullest capacity. On one point he remained adamant, however: he would not under any circumstances sacrifice quality. "There are only two ways," he would tell his students. "One is right, and the other is wrong. About is always wrong. Don't tell me it's about right. If it's only about right, then it's wrong. If you come to a stream five feet wide and jump four and a half feet, you fall in and get drowned. You might as well have tumbled in from the other side and saved yourself the exertion of a jump." George simply demanded from students what he demanded from himself: a high standard, and the will to attain it.
The entire Institute, besides being understaffed, also suffered from extremely meager funding. George could count on only a tiny trickle of support from the state government, and he responded in the only way he could, by inventing things. "Equipment," he would say, "is not all in the laboratory, but partly in the head of the man running it." To supply his classroom and laboratory, he turned once again to the junkyard. A broken china bowl and a length of iron became his mortar and pestle; the fruit jar lids other people threw away supplied him with zinc sulfate; even the nearby reed patch pushed up a continual crop of pipettes. If a student complained about his lack of supplies, George would reply, "There's no need to whine, 'Oh, if only I had so-and-so!' Do it anyhow; use what you find about you!"
While George worked strenuously to produce change in his own locality, his efforts eventually propelled him into the national arena. His work with the peanut, in particular, called the attention of the peanut industry, which immediately recognized the public appeal George Carver could have in promoting their product. On its invitation, George appeared before the House Ways and Means Committee to lobby for a peanut tariff. He won the tariff, and he also won respect from the congressmen by presenting "one of the most interesting talks I have ever heard before the committee," as one later expressed. He further impressed the committee by receiving their sometimes thinly veiled racist comments with a rare sense of humor and dignity that embarrassed the ones who uttered them.
After this event, George Carver rose to national fame almost overnight. He began traveling far and wide to give lectures on his work with the peanut, and his talks were immensely popular among both white and black audiences across the nation. While he never talked directly about racism in his speeches on campuses and at Christian youth gatherings, he demonstrated that a black man could earn the respect of the white community for his achievements, without sacrificing his own dignity. As a result of his talks, many people felt that Carver helped them to see beyond their racial prejudices and even inspire them to try to end racial prejudice in their country.
While George Washington Carver didn't make any great scientific discoveries or create a revolution in race relations, he helped many people improve their lives and see beyond the narrow confines of race and color. He endured the humiliations of segregation and came into daily contact with poverty, and he worked together with people who didn't always share his desires or agree with his methods. But he persevered, and in the end he offered humankind his enthusiasm for learning and for sharing what he knew with people who really needed it.
On January 5, 1942, George Washington Carver died in his bed. He had become a figure of international importance whose death was mourned by laborers and politicians, by students and by businessmen, and by men and women of diverse races and creeds. His life, filled with tremendous difficulties and suffering, had touched millions of people, and his death showed just how far his love had reached. As one young student wrote, "You have shown me the one race, the human race. Color of skin or form of hair mean nothing to me now, but length, and width, and breadth of soul and loving kindness mean everything."
Opening quotation from Linda O. McMurry, George Washington Carver: Scientist and Symbol.
References and Recommended Reading
Harris, William J. and Judith S. Levey. "George Washington Carver," in The New Columbia Encyclopedia. New York: Columbia University Press, 1975.
McMurry, Linda O. George Washington Carver: Scientist and Symbol. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.
Washington, Booker T. My Larger Education. 1911.
Reprinted from Walking with Contemplation.