Director Truth of Genesis
This month, as we celebrate black history, we would like to commemorate a black scientist who was a person of God as well as a person of science—George Washington Carver. Carver was born into slavery near the town of Diamond, Missouri July 12th, 1864.1 An interesting and tragic fact is that the infant George and his mother were kidnapped by civil war guerillas, like William Quantrill or Jesse James. These men fought against union or anti-slavery sympathizers like George’s future foster father Moses Carver. Moses sent a Union scout after the pair to rescue them from the bandits. Only George was able to be found, and his mother’s fate was never known. The Carvers took George and his brother Jim into their home and raised them as their own.
George was a sickly child and spent time helping his foster mother Susan Carver around the house and in the garden. George became known around the village of Diamond as the “Plant Doctor.”2 The Carvers recognized George’s special gift for learning and applying his inquisitive nature. They did what they could to educate him and nurture his interests. However, George felt the need to pursue learning and life elsewhere beginning at the age of 14. Despite his foster parents’ objections, he set out on an adventure that would find him meandering around Kansas.
His path was not a straight one. He did many things to support himself over the next decade including cooking, housework, laundry service, working at a grocery, homesteading etc. He seemed to find encouragement and assistance most everywhere he went and wrote affectionately of the people in the places he lived. But he also ran into the harsh reality of racism and mob justice during an instance where he witnessed the lynching of a black man who had been pulled out of jail after being arrested for the rape of a 12-year-old white girl. He left town immediately afterward. During his time in Kansas, he took a brief trip back home to see his family. A short time later, his brother Jim (the stronger and healthier of the two brothers) died of smallpox. Gone was his only known blood relative.
About five years after being rejected by a college because of his skin color, he was encouraged by a Christian family, who he met attending a church in Winterset, Iowa to apply again to another school. Thankfully, he was accepted with open arms into Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa in 1890. He enjoyed his time there and studied piano and art for which he had a talent. He took no science classes. His art teacher noticed his affection for botany because he was always drawing plants. “As it happened, she was the daughter of a horticulture professor at Iowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts…”3 and as the story goes, the rest is history.
He continued to paint at Iowa state, with one of his paintings being chosen to represent the state in the 1893 fair called, the “World’s Columbian Exposition”, also known as the “Chicago World’s Fair”. But he felt as if God was calling him to greater things. He worked with an expert on plant disease and co-authored several scholarly papers while at Iowa State. Carver graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1894 and then a master’s degree in Agriculture two years later. As a master’s student they gave George a graduate teaching position with freshman as he had a gift for teaching. Iowa State didn’t want to lose him, but he had several job offers.
The one he accepted was from Booker T. Washington of the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, now known as Tuskegee University. The reason was clear. He wanted to help black Americans gain economic prosperity. According to Adair, “He believed that the sort of education Tuskegee provided ‘is the key to unlock the Golden door of freedom to our people.’”4 Washington had started an annual conference to help farmers. Carver turned it, the results of his study, and work at the Tuskegee experiment station into a monthly “Farmers Institute”.5
Carver excelled as a teacher, wanting his students to be actively involved in their learning and discover for themselves, stating, “each individual, no matter of what his color or creed, has his particular task to do in life”.6 He linked his Christian beliefs with his work as a scientist. “He talked about the way ‘the Creator’ was revealed in the wonders of nature. He believed that science and religion in no way contradicted one another. “‘We get closer to God’, he wrote years later, ‘as we get more intimately and understandingly acquainted with the things he has created.’”7
As a scientist, he made a tremendous impact upon the time in which he lived and thereafter. He designed a mobile demonstration lab which was known as the “Jesup Wagon” after Morris K. Jesup, a New York banker who helped fund the project. The project became so successful that it took the notice of the USDA who later took over the project. A student of Carver’s became the USDA’s first black demonstration agent.
Dr. Carver (honorary degree) had a servant’s heart, which manifested itself in doing everything he could for the poorest and most vulnerable farmers. He set up trainings, extensions and wrote pamphlets. He knew that the subsistence farmer was very vulnerable to weather, crop disease, and poor soil as well as lack of nutrition. It is one reason he promoted crops other than cotton, which robbed the soil of nutrients, replacing it with crops such as soybeans, peanuts, and sweet potatoes.
Those crops and their promotion took him away from his teaching, spending more time in the lab trying to help people by extending the market for their products with 300 or so uses for the peanut and 100 for the sweet potato. This is where he gained his fame and notoriety. His efforts took him so far away that one day he ended up testifying before congress in Washington, D.C. They told him he had ten minutes to speak. He so captivated them with his wit and wisdom that the Republican Chairman of the committee said, “Go ahead brother, your time is unlimited.”8 Carver’s testimony helped the committee decide to implement a tariff on imported peanuts.
Yet, despite a drastically reduced classroom teaching influence he continued a close relationship with his students and those he mentored. Passing on what he learned was part of that servant’s heart. He taught his “boys,” as he called them, more than agriculture and science. It should be noted that “In many cases, it is clear that Carver's personal example did indeed change minds that had previously held to prejudiced notions of black inferiority. ‘You have shown me the one race, the human race’, one of his boys wrote. ‘Color of skin or form of hair mean nothing to me now’.”9 Believing deeply in the Golden rule, Carver felt that love would win out over racial prejudice in the end.
While Carver is most famous as an agricultural scientist and inventor, especially for uses of the peanut (he did not invent peanut butter) and sweet potato, he impressed me most for his character and service to those in need. And despite conditions and experiences that could have left him bitter and resentful, he was known for his Godly character. According to author Gene Adair, “In his speeches and interviews, he almost always referred to the Bible and divine guidance. His accomplishments, he was fond of saying, were not his doing but we're the work of God.”10
Born into slavery, a teacher, school administrator, scientist and science ambassador, George Washington Carver was a man that all Americans should know about because he exemplified Christ to many…I know he did to me.
1 Tuskegee University “The Legacy of George Washington Carver.” https://www.tuskegee.edu/support-tu/george-washington-carver
2George Washington Carver National Monument “Not Just The Peanut Man”. George Washington Carver National Monument (U.S. National Park Service) (nps.gov)
3Adair, Gene “George Washington Carver. pp33-34
4 Ibid, p. 41
5 Ibid, p. 59
6 Ibid, p. 85
7 Ibid, p. 54
8 Ibid, p.14
9 Ibid, p. 87
10 Ibid, p. 83
Morris, Henry "Men of Science Men of God"