George didn’t have much at all going for him. He was born a slave to a slave mother in Missouri. The two of them were kidnapped when he was only a young, sickly child. During their flight, the kidnappers separated him from his mother, and he never saw her again. Then they traded him to his rescuers for a broken-down old race horse. Not a good start on life.
But thanks to his Christian owners, to whom his rescuers returned him, he received a Christian upbringing, and they allowed him to work in their kitchen rather than in the fields. The Moses Carver family didn’t object when George found a Noah Webster speller and began teaching himself to read. Neither did they object when he left them to attend a little log school in Neosho, Missouri, where he lived in a stable and worked odd jobs after school to earn food money.
George refused handouts. “Just give me a chance is all I ask,” he told people. They did, and he gave them his best. He graduated high school and enrolled at Simpson College in Iowa because he knew that he wanted and needed an education to get ahead in life. To him, getting an education made living in a kind lady’s woodshed (a step up from the stable) worth it. Acting on initiative, he started a laundry business, washing other students’ clothing to pay for schooling and food. And he studied hard, focusing on botany but also taking liberal arts courses, including art, organ, and vocal music. So good were his botanical drawings that he became known as “Iowa’s ebony Leonardo,” and his sketches were exhibited at the 1893 Columbian Exposition.
After two years at Simpson, George transferred to Iowa State College, where he lived in the office of a friendly teacher. There, he studied agricultural chemistry and graduated with a B.S. degree (1894) and an M.S. degree (1896). That’s when Booker T. Washington invited George Washington Carver to join the faculty at Tuskegee Institute for $1,000 a year. He accepted, replying to Washington that he wanted only “to be of service to my people.”
Arriving at Tuskegee, he set up the entire agriculture department and a lab, where he began the experiments that were to bring him world-wide fame. He called the lab “God’s little workshop,” and there he experimented with sorghum, the sweet potato, the Irish potato, poultry problems, and the uses of clay and developed many products during his search for practical uses for common things.
One day during his prayer time, he said, he asked God to show him the meaning of the universe.
“Said the Creator, ‘You want to know too much for such a little mind as yours. Ask for something your size.'”
So he asked to know what man was made for, and God answered him, “‘Little one, you are still asking too much. Bring down the extent of your request.'”
Humbled, Carver then asked, “Tell me then, Creator, what the peanut was made for.” Then the Creator, Carver said, taught him “how to take the peanut apart and put it back together again” in the form of many helpful products.” More than 300, to be exact. And from his studies of clay came another 300, and from his sweet potato studies more than 100. And he also discovered 250 medicinal plants of the South. And he did it all while teaching a full load and helping students with not only their studies but also with life generally.
The driving force behind Carver’s work was his Christianity, and he credited the Seymour family, devout Presbyterians with whom he lived in Olathe, Kansas, for introducing him to Christ. He combined his scientific studies with careful Bible study. He spoke to God as he would a person sitting with him in his laboratory. One biographer wrote, “When he prayed thus it was like being in the vestibule of heaven.”
Perhaps the greatest compliment ever paid Carver was the comment that “he so lived that men forgot his color.” He believed that God had planted in every person specific talents and abilities and that every person should do his or her best to use those talents for both God’s glory and the good of mankind. One’s race wouldn’t matter if he always did his best.
Carver refused to be sidetracked by materialism. Many wealthy businessmen offered him vast sums to work for them, but he always refused. He even turned down Thomas Edison’s offer of $175,000 a year, choosing to remain in his $1,000-a-year Tuskegee position. He also refused to capitalize on any of his discoveries or the information services he provided for farmers and housewives.
Carver traveled and spoke widely, and he especially enjoyed addressing young people. He always told them, “Prepare yourself to do something. Do the common things of life in an uncommon way.” And encouraging them to succeed in spite of problems and obstacles, he often quoted these lines from Edgar Guest’s poem “Equipment”:
Figure it out for yourself, my lad,
You’ve all that the greatest of men have had:
Two arms, two hands, two legs, two eyes,
And a brain to use if you would be wise.
With this equipment they all began,
So start from the top and say, “I can.”
Carver fell one day as he left his laboratory and was thereafter confined to bed. At 7:30 p.m. on January 5, 1943, “the ebony wizard” passed into the world of the God he served so selflessly.
George Washington Carver was a great man who helped others and, doing so, helped make America great. He sought no special favors, no advantages over others, no handouts. All he asked was to be given a chance. The America of his day gave him the chance to prove himself, and he, through commitment, diligence, and hard work, did so. The entire world has reaped the benefits of his work.
Carver’s Legacy–Our Challenge
I’ve often wondered why so few people, especially African Americans, have ignored his example and failed to lift him up as the exemplar he is. Instead, they point to flawed athletes, rock stars, rappers, drug dealers, and gang bangers. People today don’t like to be told that they have an obligation and responsibility to their Creator to discover, develop, and use their talents in hard work for the benefit of others. They are interested only in themselves and what others can do for them.
If Carver were speaking to young people today, I think he would still be saying the same things he told young people in the first half of the last century. Here are a few of his statements. Think of how much greater America could be if we heeded them.
- “Ninety-nine percent of the failures come from people who have the habit of making excuses.”
- “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.”
- “No individual has any right to come into the world and go out of it without leaving behind him distinct and legitimate reasons for having passed through it.”
- “When you can do the common things of life in an uncommon way, you will command the attention of the world.”
- “Start where you are, with what you have. Make something of it and never be satisfied.”
- “Human need is really a great spiritual vacuum which God seeks to fill.”
- “I love to think of nature as an unlimited broadcasting station, through which God speaks to us every hour, if we will only tune in.”
- “One of the things that has helped me as much as any other is not how long I am going to live, but how much I can do while living.”
Recommended reading: Basil Miller, George Washington Carver: God’s Ebony Scientist (Zondervan, 1943); Gary Kremer, ed., George Washington Carver in His Own Words (University of Missouri Press, 1987); John Perry, Unshakable Faith: Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver (Multnomah Publishers, 1999).