Profiles in Greatness – George Washington Carver

George Washington Carver took control of his destiny at an early age. Born into slavery, the boy without a name overcame prejudice and poverty to dedicate his life to helping others achieve a livelihood, and with it, a sense of self-worth and dignity.

“There is no shortcut to achievement. Life requires thorough preparation—veneer isn’t worth anything.”

Carver believed he was born in January 1864—one year before slavery was abolished—in Missouri, but his exact date of birth is unknown. As a boy, living on a farm owned by Moses and Susan Carver near Diamond Grove, he was known only as “Carver’s George.” His father was killed shortly after he was born, and Carver, his mother and one of his sisters were captured by slave raiders and taken to Arkansas. Carver, ill with whooping cough, was the only one rescued and returned to the Carvers, who were told by doctors that the boy wouldn’t live to see 21 years.

Too frail to work the land, Carver learned household chores and gardening. Soon, people began calling the young boy the Plant Doctor, and neighbors brought him their ailing plants.

When Carver was 10, he left the homestead to attend a school for African-American children. A local midwife took him in and encouraged him to begin calling himself George Carver. (He gave himself the middle name of Washington later in life.) Carver traveled as a teenager, working and attending school when he could. In 1885, he graduated from Minneapolis High School in Kansas.

After being rejected by Highland College because of his race, Carver was accepted to Simpson College in Iowa, as the first African-American at the school. Carver set up a laundry service in an abandoned shack on the edge of campus. “For quite one month,” Carver later wrote, “I lived on prayer, beef suet and cornmeal, and quite often being without the suet and meal. Modesty prevented me telling my condition to strangers.”

He flourished at school in his basic courses as well as in piano and painting and soon transferred to Iowa Agricultural College in Ames (today, Iowa State University) to focus on botany. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in agriculture in 1894 and was offered a job teaching botany, as the first African-American faculty member.

“Learn to do common things uncommonly well; we must always keep in mind that anything that helps fill the dinner pail is valuable.”

In 1896, after Carver had earned his master’s degree, he received a letter from Booker T. Washington, the African- American educator who founded Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. In the letter, Washington asked Carver to establish a much needed agricultural department, writing, “I cannot offer you money, position or fame. The first two you have. The last, from the place you now occupy, you will no doubt achieve. These things I now ask you to give up. I offer you in their place work—hard, hard work—the task of bringing a people from degradation, poverty and waste to full manhood.” Carver immediately accepted the offer.

At the time, most African-Americans in the Gulf States were farmers, and their farms had become barren after years of planting cotton, a soil-depleting crop. A boll weevil infestation in the 1890s was pushing the already destitute communities into bankruptcy.

Carver used his classroom as a means to help the ailing communities. He suggested farmers rotate cotton with peanuts, which enriched the soil with nitrogen, and he taught new methods of fertilization.

As peanuts became a more popular crop, Carver started researching the plant’s various uses to increase the financial return to farmers. He found more than 300 valuable uses for the legume, along with hundreds more from other native plants, such as sweet potatoes and soybeans. Carver also experimented with hybrids to produce hardier versions of cotton and vegetables.

Carver’s work in his Tuskegee laboratory revolutionized the Southern agricultural economy. His concern with the individual farmer’s ability to make a decent living was paramount in his tireless efforts.

“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.”

The Plant Doctor was eventually renamed the Wizard of Tuskegee. He was awarded doctorates, honors, medals and praise from around the world. But throughout his life, Carver remained true to his singular vision and motivation: service. He maintained the same salary at Tuskegee, despite their repeated attempts to increase his wages, and he often wore a modest gray tweed suit with a flower in the lapel and with baggy knees—the result of kneeling near his beloved plants.

Carver believed education should be universal, and he carried his lectures to the countryside for farmers who couldn’t travel. He spoke to them about agricultural enhancements, sound nutrition, health and the importance of self-sufficiency. His “school on wheels” model was later adopted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

He wrote and published more than 40 pamphlets to educate the small farmer on topics ranging from feeding livestock to raising pigs to gardening. He answered questions from readers in a syndicated newspaper column called “Professor Carver’s Advice.”

In 1910, Tuskegee established the Department of Agricultural Research and appointed Carver as the head. He stopped teaching and devoted the rest of his life to research and lecturing across the country.

“May God ever bless, keep, guide and continue to prosper you in your uplifting work for humanity, be it great or small, is my daily prayer.”

Over his lifetime, Carver gained an unparalleled reputation for creative science, teaching and outreach. He had become a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, London, had a feature film made of his life, saw the opening of the George Washington Carver Museum and received the Roosevelt Medal for Outstanding Contribution to Southern Agriculture. However, even later in life, when he had gained an international following, he refused payment when helping those in need.

Carver did not seek personal gain; instead, he worked to make the world a better place for all men, regardless of color or income level. He died Jan. 5, 1943, and was buried with a flower in his lapel next to the grave of Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee.

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