In the fall of 1861, bushwhackers kidnapped a slave girl and her baby from a small Missouri farm, intending to resell them in the South. But Moses Carver, who had bought the girl as a companion for his wife, offered a $300 racehorse for their return. A bounty hunter went after them, but all he had to show for his efforts when he returned was the sickly infant. Carver gave him the racehorse anyway.
The lad was called George, and when the Emancipation Proclamation freed all slaves, he was raised as a member of the Carver family. Too frail for heavy farm work, he developed a deep love for all growing things. He also had a great desire to learn: Why did the roses grow here but not there? Why did the field crops produce less this year than the year before? He desperately wanted to learn to read, but the local white school wouldn't enroll colored children.
Determined to get an education, he left home at age fourteen, working odd jobs to support himself and going to school anywhere that would take him. George Carver wasted little time on bitterness even though racism threw cruel obstacles in his path again and again. Later in life he said, "If I used my energy to right every wrong done to me, I would have no energy left for my work." Eventually he received his master's degree in agriculture and bacterial botany from Iowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts, and two honorary doctorates.
Carver's thirst to understand God's created world knew no bounds. But why had God given him the skills to unlock nature's secrets? In 1896 he received a letter from Booker T. Washington from Tuskegee Institute in Alabama: Would he come and teach his people how to grow food? The only thing most Southerners knew how to grow was cotton—"King Cotton" they called it. But each year the cotton fields produced less and less. Add years of slavery, the ravages of the Civil War, and the injustices of racism, and most black Americans lived in grinding poverty. Suddenly he knew: God had revealed His plan for George Carver.
For the rest of his life, Dr. Carver dedicated his knowledge of science to helping the common man make a living. He developed two hundred new products from the peanut and 118 practical products from the sweet potato. In so doing, he broke King Cotton's grip on the South, renewing the tired soil and benefiting whites and blacks alike.
The humblest of men, he turned down many well-paying job offers and refused to take a raise in salary. When he died in 1943, he was still receiving the same $125 a week he had started with over forty years earlier. His epitaph reads: "He could have added fortune to fame, but caring for neither, he found happiness and honor in helping the world."
George Carver's eyes widened as he untied the paper wrapping and took out the worn brown leather Bible. "A Christmas present for me?" he said in surprise.
"For when you learn to read," said the kindly midwife. Mariah Watkins had seen the fourteen-year-old boy sitting on her fence earlier that fall of 1875, looking hungry and lost. He'd walked to Neosha, Missouri, to attend the Lincoln School for Colored Children, but he had no money or a place to live. The Watkinses had taken him in and were amazed at how hard he worked for his keep. This boy had promise.
"Do you know how to read, Aunt Mariah?" George asked.
Mariah's eyes got misty. "Before the Civil War, I was a slave, just like your mammy. Of all the slaves on the plantation, only one, a woman named Libby, knew how to read. If our master had found out, she probably would've been sold downriver to the South quick as a blink because any slave who had some learnin' was considered uppity and dangerous. But Libby refused to keep this gift to herself and secretly taught some of the rest of us how to read." Mariah took the boy by the shoulders. "George, you must learn all you can, then be like Libby. Go out in the world and give your learnin' back to our people. They're starvin' for a little learnin'."
George was eager to learn and began reading the Bible—a daily habit that gave him strength to the end of his life. But he soon learned everything the Neosha teacher could teach him. Hitching a wagon ride to Fort Scott, Kansas, he got a job cooking to earn money for school books. But one day he saw a colored man dragged out of a jail and burned to death by an angry mob. Frightened, he realized it was dangerous to have dark skin in Fort Scott.
Traveling from town to town in the Midwest, doing odd jobs, George finally graduated from high school. He excelled in botany, biology, chemistry, and art—but there was so much more to learn! Hardly daring to hope, he applied to a Presbyterian college in Highland, Kansas. One day the longed-for letter arrived: He had been accepted! That fall he eagerly arrived on campus. But the dean took one look and said, "You didn't tell us you were a Negro. Highland College does not take Negroes."
George was devastated. Was this the end of the road?
A few years later, renewing his courage, he applied to Simpson College and was accepted—only the second black person in the college's history. At his art teacher's urging, he transferred to the Iowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts to study horticulture—even though he was barred from the student dining room and had to eat with the kitchen staff. He suffered this indignity patiently, telling himself that ignorant people would not keep him from his duty. The school quickly changed its mind when a prominent white woman who admired George's paintings came to visit him and insisted on eating with him in the kitchen.
After obtaining his master's degree, George was offered a job as professor at Iowa State. But in his mind he heard Mariah Watkins' voice saying, "Be like Libby. Give your learnin' back to your people." When a letter from Tuskegee Institute in Alabama arrived, asking Professor Carver to come teach southern blacks new ways to farm, he knew immediately this was the task God had been preparing him for all along.
Perseverance is knowing God's love is more powerful than the obstacles evil people put in our way.
Can anything separate us from the love Christ has for us? Can troubles or problems or sufferings or hunger or nakedness or danger or violent death? ... In all these things we have full victory through God who showed his love for us (Romans 8:35, 37).
I cannot offer you money, position, or fame," Booker T. Washington had written to George Carver. "I offer you in their place work—hard, hard work—the task of bringing a people from degradation, poverty, and waste to full personhood."
As Dr. Carver, satchel in hand, stood looking at the dreary frame buildings and barren, dusty grounds of the Tuskegee Institute, Washington's words took on grim meaning. The soil was starving, drained of its nutrients by centuries of planting only cotton. But some things were growing here and there. Curiously, Carver set down his bag and began picking this leafy stalk, then that one, until he had an armful.
"Lad," he called to the boy who had picked him up from the train, "what is the name of this plant?"
"That?" said the boy. "It's a weed."
"They're all weeds." Carver smiled. "But every weed has a name, and most of them have a purpose."
Within a few weeks, Professor Carver had thirteen students and a task: to set up a laboratory to test local soil and find ways to enrich it for farming. Only one hitch; there was no money to buy equipment for a laboratory.
Carver had never let the lack of money stand in his way. God had given him a brain, and he intended to use it. Marching his students to the school dump, he directed them to save everything possible: bottles, cooking pots, jar lids, wire, odd bits of metal, rusty lamps, broken handles. When the dump had been thoroughly searched, they scoured the back alleys of Tuskegee for china dishes, rubber, curtain rods, and flatirons.
"All this may seem to be just junk to you," he told his skeptical students. "But it is only waiting for us to apply our intelligence to it. Let's get to work!"
Under Carver's supervision, the students punched holes in pieces of tin to make strainers to test soil samples; neatly labeled canning jars held an assortment of chemicals; broken bottles were cut down and transformed into beakers; a discarded ink bottle with a cork and a piece of string made do nicely as a Bunsen burner.
Gradually the makeshift laboratory took shape. And a valuable lesson was learned by the Tuskegee students that carried over into later years, when they took their knowledge into the poverty-stricken pockets of the South. Expensive or brand-new equipment was not a requirement for success.
Dr. Carver was never satisfied with only the obvious use of a thing, especially when it came to things in nature. He firmly believed God had provided all that people needed in the created world; God left it to humans to figure out the secrets locked within each plant, animal, or mineral. To many, a peanut was just a snack and not worth growing as a crop. But with Dr. Carver's probing curiosity and scientific knowledge, the peanut produced butter, oil, milk, dye, salve, shaving cream, paper, shampoo, metal polish, stains, adhesives, plastics, wallboard, and more—for a total of three hundred products! It was this variation that provided new markets for southern crops and saved the South from ruin.
Resourcefulness is using our God-given minds to see usefulness in things (or people) that others just throw away.
My God will use his wonderful riches in Christ Jesus to give you everything you need (Philippians 4:19).
Dr. George Washington Carver bent down and cut a huge head of cabbage, then lifted it for the openmouthed farmers crowded around him. "These were the worst twenty acres in Alabama four years ago," he said dryly. "Now each acre is producing a $75 profit."
It was Farmers' Institute Day at Tuskegee Institute. On the third Tuesday of each month, Dr. Carver talked to local farmers about the importance of rotating their crops and how rotted leaves and kitchen wastes could enrich their soil. "Don't burn off your corn stalks," he scolded. "That's like burning off the outside bills on a roll of dollars. Plow them back into the soil. It's free fertilizer."
As the farmers left, shaking their heads in amazement, Tom Campbell, one of Carver's students, grinned. "Soon as their neighbors see those farmers growing bigger melons than they are, every farmer in Macon County will be hoofin' it up here on third Tuesdays to see your experiment station."
Dr. Carver rubbed his chin thoughtfully. For months he'd been thinking about the dirt-poor farmers tucked away in little hollows all over the county. "No, Tom," he said, "if we want to help the man farthest down take a step up, we're going to have to take the school to them. Say ... do you think you could scare up a wagon and a horse?"
So it was that the "school man" from Tuskegee and Tom Campbell could be seen each weekend driving the back roads that fall of 1899. It wasn't easy persuading farmers to try something new. "What makes you think you smarter'n me?" scoffed one. "You just as black." Out would come sample plants, and Dr. Carver would patiently explain how they could plant two crops of sweet potatoes a year and feed their hogs with the vines, culls, and peelings—and still do less damage to the soil than one crop of cotton.
"Each plant takes certain things from the soil," he explained. "If you plant only one thing year after year, the soil is soon drained. But chickpeas take nitrogen from the air and put it back into the soil."
"Chickpeas!" snorted a housewife. "What good are chickpeas?" Then Dr. Carver would roll up his sleeves, put a pot of chickpeas on the woodburning stove, and turn out a tasty meal with mashed chickpeas as the main ingredient in three or four dishes.
Some of Carver's students were doubtful of the school on wheels. "That's no way to make money—giving away free advice."
Carver's eyes flashed fire. "I'm not here to contribute to your own gain," he said, "but to help you lead your people forward. That will be the mark of your success, not the style of clothes you wear, nor the amount of money you put in the bank. It is only service that counts!"
In fact, Carver considered the school on wheels his most important work. He taught backwoods people medical remedies from herbs and plants, how to brighten up their buildings with paints made from color-rich dirt, how to dry fruits and vegetables to feed their families all year long.
And the idea spread. Soon lots of wagons were traveling the back roads. In 1918, the state of Alabama provided a huge motorized truck for the traveling school. Other schools began copying the idea. Educators from foreign countries visited Tuskegee Institute to ask how they could adapt Carver's idea.
When Dr. Carver died in 1943, the chaplain of the school said, "He worshiped God by drawing out of the things that grow goodnesses to serve the needs of mankind."
Service is using God's gifts for the good of others, not for our own gain.
Each of you has received a gift to use to serve others. Be good servants of God's various gifts of grace (1 Peter 4:10).
Heroes in Black History: True Stories From the Lives of Christian Heroes by Dave and Neta Jackson
Copyright © 2008; ISBN 9780764205569
Published by Bethany House Publishers
Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.