Many people have heard of George Washington Carver, but few are aware of the importance of his contributions to the world, or of the spiritual depth of this unassuming, Christ-like man.
George Washington Carver was one of the best-known African-Americans of his era. A brilliant scientist and educator, he was a major force for the upliftment of the black race, and an innovator in the field of agricultural biochemistry.
Carver is believed to have been born into slavery on a farm near Diamond Grove, Missouri in 1864. Orphaned almost from birth, he was raised by Moses and Susan Carver, kindly German immigrants. As a child, Carver spent many hours roaming the woods. Early on, word spread that he had a magic touch in growing and healing plants.
“God has work for you”
When he was 14, Carver moved to Neosho, eight miles away. There he attended a one-room school for black children, earned money doing domestic chores, and found room and board with Andrew and Mariah Watkins, a deeply religious black couple.
When Carver told Mariah that he had been “lucky” to meet her his first day in Neosho, she said, “Luck had nothing to do with it, boy. God brought you to my yard. He has work for you, and He wants Andrew and me to lend a hand.” Mariah gave Carver a worn, leather-bound Bible and within a year he had memorized large segments. Until the day he died, he read daily from that Bible.
After nine months, Carver left Neosho to further his education. His ultimate goal was to obtain a college education but, hindered by racism, not until 1890 did he enroll in Iowa State College. Setting aside his love of painting, he decided to study agricultural science. Although Carver was very gifted as a painter and singer, he deeply believed that God wanted him to use his education to help black people.
In 1896, the year he received his Master’s degree, Carver accepted Booker T. Washington’s invitation to take over the newly established agricultural school at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.
A collection of shacks
Expecting a typical campus, Carver was dismayed to find a collection of shacks, and only a few larger buildings, on arid land criss-crossed with gullies. The agricultural building had yet to be built, and Carver was allocated a single room—to serve as office, laboratory, classroom, and living quarters.
Assessing the magnitude of the challenges he faced from the depleted soil and lack of equipment and facilities, Carver calmly reminded himself that if God had meant his life to be easy, he would never have made him a black man.
Carver would later lead his students on an expedition to the school’s junk heap and the back alleys of the nearby town, where they collected old bottles, rusted pans, fruit jar lids, discarded flat irons, odd bits of metal, and other items. From this pile of refuse, Carver’s first laboratory took shape.
The “soul” of the faculty
Carver was an inspirational teacher who challenged his students to uncover the “incalculable wealth” within their brains, and to listen carefully to the voice of God speaking through plants, animals, and other divine creations. Often referred to as the “soul” of the Tuskegee faculty, he believed deeply in divine guidance, and relied on intuition for scientific insights.
“All my life,” he said, “I have risen regularly at four o’clock and have gone into the woods and talked with God. There He gives me my orders for the day. Alone there with the things I love most, I gather specimens and study the great lessons Nature is so eager to teach us all.”
The “Moveable School”
Carver served on the Tuskegee faculty for 47 years, devoting himself to research projects aimed at helping the “man farthest down”—southern dirt farmers, black and white—break the cycle of poverty and debt.
One of his earliest innovations was the “Moveable School,” which he developed in 1899. Every weekend, Carver and a student loaded up a mule-drawn wagon with farm tools, seed packets, and demonstration plants and visited black and white farmers in the backwoods and swamps.
He taught them practical skills—how to compost, raise livestock, plant vegetable gardens, preserve food, and paint their houses using inexpensive paint made out of Alabama clay. Most importantly, he taught them how to bring the soil back to life and get out from under the burden of economic dependence upon cotton.
The Bible comes to life
In 1907, Carver started a Bible class which soon became one of the best-attended extracurricular activities on campus. Using vivid dramatizations of biblical stories and illustrations from nature, he discussed the relationship between science and religion, which he saw as complementary means of arriving at truth.
“Mysteries,” he said, “are things we don’t yet understand because we haven’t learned to tune in.” “God is always there,” he would tell the students, “just like electricity, waiting for you to make contact.”
Carver also instilled in his students the importance of giving to others—not only money, but also courage, hope, and their friendship and talents. All the great ones, he told them, from Jesus Christ to Booker T. Washington, were imbued with this sense of giving.
The glut of peanuts
In 1914, Carver was confronted with a major crisis. Farmers who had heeded his advice on crop rotation and diversity, and were producing peanuts in great abundance, suddenly discovered there was no market for their crops. Deeply upset, Carver went to the woods in the early morning hours and cried out to God for an answer. And as he later explained, softly recounting the story, “The Creator answered me….”
Back at his Tuskegee laboratory, Carver discovered over 300 uses for the peanut, including synthetic marble, ink, glue, dye, plastics, food, oils, and milk. Within four years, he had helped to create a thriving market for the peanut and to transform the economy of the south.
Carver’s success with the peanut led him to explore new uses for other agricultural products such as sweet potatoes, pecans and soybeans. He developed new strains of cotton less susceptible to the boll weevil, and experimented with a cure for polio using peanut oil and massage therapy, achieving positive results.
His bio-chemical research, which included food dehydration, was especially valuable during the Great Depression of the 1930s and World War II, when basic necessities were in short supply.
“Commune with God”
In the 1920s, Carver was enlisted to help improve race relations in the south, and spoke regularly at white college campuses. With his warm personality and engaging manner, he cultivated close friendships with dozens of young whites, opening their eyes to racial injustice. For many of them, whom he referred to as “my boys,” he became a spiritual mentor.
In his correspondence, Carver urged his boys to commune deeply with God: “How I would love to see you get to the point where you could commune with God, through the things He has created. Your soul longs for it, and you will never be thoroughly happy until you do this.”
Carver repeatedly turned down salary increases at Tuskegee, lucrative job offers from American industrialists, and refused payment when consulting with delegations from countries in Asia, Africa, and South America.
Throughout his life, he patented only three of his hundreds of discoveries. He would say, “God gave them to me; how can I sell them to someone else?” He measured his life solely in terms of service to others. Whatever success he achieved, he attributed it to God working through him.
A love of solitude
Carver’s many friends included three presidents, and the industrialist, Henry Ford. He corresponded with Mahatma Gandhi, offering food conservation advice. But he found his deepest fulfillment in solitude, in the laboratory or sitting on a stump in his beloved woodlands.
When Carver fell ill in 1942, he refused to see a doctor saying, “There is nothing to be done.” He passed away January 5, 1943 with the words, “I think I’ll sleep now.”