By Bill Webb, Word&Way Editor
Christians and others give particular attention to racial reconciliation during February. Missourians have a claim to fame in an ex-slave who excelled in his profession and helped bridge the racial divide in America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
George Washington Carver was born into slavery in Newton County, near Diamond Grove (today known as Diamond) around 1864. Moses Carver was a German-American immigrant who paid $700 for George’s mother, Mary, in 1855. When George was an infant, he, his mother and a sister were kidnapped by Confederate night raiders and sold in Arkansas. Moses Carver dispatched John Bentley to retrieve the three, but only George — orphaned and severely ill from whooping cough — was recovered.
George recovered but was too weak to work as a farm hand. Instead, he wandered the field and studied wild plants. He became so knowledgeable about plants that neighbors dubbed him the “plant doctor.” After slavery was abolished, the Carvers raised George and his brother Jim as their own. Susan Carver taught George the basics of reading and writing.
Blacks were not allowed to attend school in Diamond Grove, but George was not deterred and made his way to Neosho, 10 miles away, to attend a school for African Americans. The first person he met in Neosho was Mariah Watkins. When he introduced himself as “Carver’s George,” she told him that from then on he would be George Carver. He never forgot her advice: “You must learn all you can, then go back into the world and give your learning back to the people.”
George ultimately attended a series of schools before he graduated from Minneapolis (Kan.) High School. After he had operated a laundry business in Olathe, Kan., for five years, Highland (Kan.) College accepted his application, only to reject him when he arrived and was discovered to be African American.
His travels brought George to Winterset, Iowa, where he met a white couple who encouraged him to enroll in Simpson College in nearby Indianola.
At Simpson, George demonstrated talent in singing and art, but an instructor advised him to transfer to Iowa State Agricultural College (today Iowa State University) and pursue a career with better pay. He followed her advice in 1891, and became that school’s first African American student and later its first black instructor.
George blossomed in his research work at the Iowa Agriculture and Home Economics Experiment Station as a graduate student. He began calling himself George Washington Carver to avoid confusion with another George Carver at the school. By the time he received his master’s degree in 1896, George had gained national respect as a botanist.
Upon George’s graduation, Booker T. Washington, president of a five-year-old school called Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute (later Tuskegee University) invited George to head the Agriculture Department and he accepted.
The young educator’s heart was in research, and he discovered or passed along many uses for the peanut, sweet potato, pecan, soybean and other plants to help poor farmers. Among the product possibilities he suggested to farmers were axle grease, bleach, buttermilk, ink, instant coffee, mayonnaise, linoleum, metal polish, paper, plastic, shaving cream, synthetic rubber and wood stain. Among other techniques, he encouraged crop rotation to help replenish depleted soil.
Many who wrote about him exaggerated his accomplishments, often suggesting he discovered 300 uses for peanuts. But some of what he passed along to farmers through his famous agricultural “bulletins” included not only his own ideas but products that already had been developed, like peanut butter.
His accomplishments did not need embellishment, for they were many. One of those was to stand before the Ways and Means Committee of the U.S. Congress in 1921 and argue successfully for a tariff on peanuts being imported from China. When he entered, he was mocked by Southern congressmen, but by the time he had finished the committee rose to applaud him. Congress approved the tariff.
George died on Jan. 5, 1943, at the age of 79 after a bad fall down a flight of stairs and was buried next to Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee. His gravestone reads: “He could have added fortune to fame, but caring for neither, he found happiness and honor in being helpful to the world.”
One of George Washington Carver’s trademarks was that he credited God with helping him make every discovery in his research laboratory, referring to Him as “Mr. Creator.” That placed him at odds with many in the scientific community, who saw the botanist-scientist as anti-evolution. But it didn’t bother George.
Even though George was one of the most innovative and practical scientists of his time, he did not keep a lab log, nor did he write down the formulas for his products. His bulletins to farmers were the exceptions. He secured only three patents in his life.
But what we do have are some of the character-revealing statements he made:
• “It is not the style of clothes one wears, neither the kind of automobile one drives, nor the amount of money one has in the bank, that counts. These mean nothing. It is simply service that measures success.”
• “There is no short cut to achievement. Life requires thorough preparation — veneer isn’t worth anything.”
• “Learn to do common things uncommonly well....”
• “How far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving and tolerant of the weak and strong. Because someday in life you will have been all of these.”
• “The primary idea in all my work was to help the farmer and fill the poor man’s empty dinner pail. My idea is to help the ‘man farthest down.’ This is why I have made every process just as simply as I could to put it within his reach.”
I suspect all of us could benefit from the example of someone who secured an education and vocational success despite enormous obstacles. Living a life dedicated to helping others is the kind of person each can strive to emulate. Because of a life well lived, the Missouri native improved race relations in his day, demonstrated that natural resources are to be used wisely and still reminds us of the importance of faith in all of life.
The information in this column was secured through online sources, including Wikipedia.org and inventors.about.com. The George Washington Carver National Monument is located at Diamond, Mo. (2-22-07)