By Dr. Rick Chromey
“When you can do the common things of life in an uncommon way,
you will command the attention of the world.”
These words by George Washington Carver (1864-1943) were the frame for one of America’s most influential Black lives. It’s likely you’ve heard of Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and Rosa Parks, but don’t miss the transformative “uncommon way” of George Washington Carver, a man who “commanded the attention of the world.”
Carver was one of America’s greatest botanists, but he also was an educator, conservationist, artist…and dedicated Christian. His story is worth re-telling.
George Washington Carver was born into slavery in Missouri, sometime in 1864. When he was a newborn baby, he and his mother and sister were kidnapped by slave raiders, who transported them to Arkansas (and later sold them in Kentucky). Carver’s Missouri master desperately tried to locate them, but only found George. After some negotiation, the baby Carver was redeemed, rescued, and returned to Missouri. A few years later, when slavery was formally abolished, George’s master chose to become his father, raising him as one of his own.
From an early age, Carver was encouraged to read, write, investigate, and study. His favorite subject was botany.
At age 11, Carver moved to Neosho, Mo. to continue his schooling. That’s when he met Mariah Watkins, a Black woman who boarded George and encouraged his education. It was important, she said, that Carver “give…learning back to [his] people.” And that’s exactly what he did. His drive to learn as much as possible, no matter where it led him, framed his entire life. George eventually moved to Kansas (where he graduated high school) and then to Simpson College (Indianola, Iowa) to study art and painting.
It was in painting fruits and flowers that George reignited his love for botany.
In 1890, Carver transferred to Iowa State Agricultural College (now Iowa State University) to study agriculture. He was the college’s first Black student and earned his bachelor’s (1894) and master’s (1896) degrees. Carver’s stellar intelligence, positive attitude and impressive agricultural skills landed him a faculty job at Iowa State (the school’s first Black professor).
But it didn’t take long for George Washington Carver to receive a higher call. This one from Booker T. Washington, the principal of the esteemed Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Booker offered George a great salary and provided the bachelor with his own two-room campus apartment (with one of the rooms just for his plants). However, Carver’s move to Tuskegee wasn’t easy. His nicer accommodations sparked jealousy among other single instructors (who shared rooms and survived on meager salaries). Furthermore, the transition from “free” Iowa to the Jim Crow South also proved difficult for him. The Ku Klux Klan. Lynching. Black vote suppression. Segregation. It was a culture that Carver would have to learn to navigate carefully.
But he did. For the next five decades, Carver became a fixture at Tuskegee.
He developed the Agriculture Department, taught classes, managed the school’s farms, mentored students, handled janitorial duties, served on multiple committees, and worked with area farmers. Despite his many activities and commitments, Carver was an introvert. He preferred working quietly with his plants more than any other teaching activity.
Carver’s greatest contributions involved his work with poor Alabama sharecroppers. He taught them how to rotate crops, fertilize with “swamp muck,” and feed their livestock better (and cheaper). He encouraged them to stop growing cotton and move to crops (peanuts, sweet potatoes, soybeans) that infused the soil with nitrogen. This allowed the soil to rest and rejuvenate. The high yield in peanuts turned Carver into “The Peanut Man.” In fact, he developed over 300 food, commercial and industrial “peanut” products (milk, sauces, oils, soaps). He even invented cosmetics, paper and medications using peanuts.
By 1910, Carver was famous for his agricultural science, not just in America but around the world. He used his celebrity status to promote his love of peanuts, the Tuskegee Institute, and racial reconciliation. Carver also proved to be a prolific writer, penning books, articles, and bulletins. He was friends with U.S. Presidents and captains of industry. He eventually funded a Tuskegee foundation and museum using his own life savings.
Carver was a devout Christian. In fact, many historians credit his humility, gentleness, compassion, and joy to his deep faith. Although he never married, he kept many close friendships from his church. He believed only Christianity could eradicate racism and social disharmony. He was also a Bible scholar and popular Sunday School teacher, known for his ability to act out a Scripture story.
In 1922, Carver provided a student with his “eight cardinal virtues”:
- Be clean both inside and out.
- Neither look up to the rich nor down on the poor.
- Lose, if need be, without squealing.
- Win without bragging.
- Always be considerate of women, children and old people.
- Be too brave to lie.
- Be too generous to cheat.
- Take your share of the world and let other people have theirs.
George W. Carver died January 5, 1943. His Tuskegee gravestone reads: “He could have added fortune to fame, but caring for neither, he found happiness and honor in being helpful to the world.” Carver has been memorialized as one of America’s most important persons. His likeness adorns stamps, coins, and medals. His name appears on schools, bridges, and streets. Carver has state parks and botanical gardens named for him, and his Missouri birthplace is a National Monument. Since 1943, January 5 has been George Washington Carver Day. He’s also been elected to multiple “halls of fame” and awarded honorary degrees.
From slavery to peanuts to presidents, this Tuskegee professor packed a lot of life into his 79 years.
George Washington Carver. Scientist. Educator. Conservationist. Inventor. Artist. Christian.
And now you know the rest of HIStory.
- “George Washington Carver” (Wikipedia): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Washington_Carver
- “George Washington Carver: An Uncommon Life” Documentary (Iowa Public Broadcasting): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_3CVmluYFtI
- “George Washington Carver” (History.com): A&E Television Networks. https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/george-washington-carver Accessed February 17, 2022.
Dr. Rick Chromey helps people interpret history, navigate culture and explore faith. He’s an author, historian, professor, and founder/president of MANNA! Educational Services International. Rick and his wife Linda live in Star. Rick is available to speak and train for your next event. Readers are also invited to subscribe to the Morning MANNA! inspirational and educational (M-F) email. Please visit: www.mannasolutions.org.