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George Washington Carver

(By Rob McLeod)

Overcoming Obstacles: The life of George Washington Carver exemplifies what kind of eternal, spiritual fruit can be borne from forgiveness and a childlike faith in God. Born into slavery in Missouri in the early to mid1860’s, George Washington Carver had a childhood that most of us could never relate to. While only a week old, he, a sister and his mother were kidnapped from his slave owner by raiders. Despite George eventually being safely returned to his slave owner, the eventual whereabouts of his mother and sister were never determined.

Teaching slaves to read and write was practically forbidden in the 19th century but the abolition of slavery in the United States afforded young George new opportunities. Although black children in his home town of Diamond Grove, Missouri were still not allowed to attend public school in the 1870’s George was able to walk from his hometown to Neosha, Missouri (approximately a 15 km walk) to attend the Lincoln School for Coloured Children. The evening that George arrived in town he found the school closed for the night and history records that he slept that night in a nearby barn. A kind woman, Mariah Watkins, had noticed George’s predicament shortly thereafter and offered George a room to rent. Mariah also eventually gave George something eternally precious; his own Bible, for when he learned to read.

Despite the rampant segregation at the time, George was eventually able to finish high school having supported himself doing odd jobs. After applying at several colleges, George was accepted via letter at Highland University in Highland, Kansas. When he arrived for classes in the fall he was abruptly turned away by the dean of the university when the dean discovered that George was black. Despite the apparent set back, the Lord used this time for good in George’s life. George subsequently tried his hand at farming on a homestead where he planted a variety of produce and trees. It is likely that this season of life fueled George’s eventual passion for botany. The Lord was still working.

George eventually settled for horticultural training at the Iowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts (now Iowa State University) in 1891. However, the lingering effects of racism still loomed large over George in Iowa. He was banned from eating in the student dining room due to being black. He took this persecution peacefully and without public complaint. The university saw it fit to treat George better when a prominent white women, and an admirer of George’s paintings, would intentionally eat with George in the campus kitchen. In 1896 George graduated with a master of science degree and was offered a faculty position. This would make him the first black faculty member at Iowa State. However, remembering the words of Mariah Watkins to “Give your learnin’ back to your people” George instead accepted an offer from Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) in Alabama to head its Agriculture Department. In Booker T. Washington’s letter of invitation, he had written to George that “I cannot offer you money, position, or fame. I offer you in their place work. Hard, hard, work; the task of bringing a people from degradation, poverty and waste to full personhood.” George’s new direction was to teach southern black people more productive, and self-sufficient, ways to farm; this would be a mandate that George fulfilled over the next, almost half century.

Setting up a laboratory at the financially strapped Tuskegee Institute required a man as resourceful and intentional as George. Having little to no funds to make use of, George took his first students to the school dump where they collected anything from pots and lids to curtain rods and rubber and repurposed them into beakers, strainers and Bunsen burners. George’s lab research found immediate application. The soil in the southern USA had been depleted of minerals due to decades of continuous cotton plantings. George encouraged area farmers to practice systematic crop rotation thereby allowing essential nutrients, such as nitrogen, to be replenished in the soil. Plantings now became much more diverse. Crops such as peanuts, soybeans and sweet potatoes were offered as a useful alternative to cotton. The alternative cash crops and improved cotton yields assisted many black farmers in becoming financially independent. All told, George’s diligent research culminated in over 300 promoted uses for the lowly peanut and over 100 products from sweet potatoes.

George Washington Carver’s reputation as a creative scientist and a man of grace was further cemented toward the end of his life. On his many speaking engagements George spoke of much more than science. He often remarked on issues such as character and the need for the Lord to be glorified by our lives and choices. Some remarks attributed to George include: “We have become 99 percent money mad. The method of living at home modestly and within our income, laying a little by systematically for the proverbial rainy day which is due to come, can almost be listed among the lost arts.” “God cannot use you as He wishes until you come into the fullness of His Glory. Do not get alarmed, my friend, when doubts creep in. That is old Satan. Pray, pray, pray.” “Ninety-nine percent of the failures come from people who have the habit of making excuses.”

George died in January, 1943 from complications arising from falling down a set of stairs. In his estate he had saved nearly $60,000 USD which was used to establish the George Washington Carver Foundation. After his death, President Roosevelt passed legislation declaring George’s birthplace a national monument. Up until that time, only past presidents (George Washington and Abraham Lincoln) had been afforded that honor. George’s favourite Bible passage is a fitting reminder where his true hope lay: Psalm 121:1-2 “I will lift up my eyes to the hills—from whence comes my help? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”