George Washington Carver was born a slave during the Civil War, possibly in 1865, but there are no records. Within a few weeks, his father, who belonged to the next farm over, was killed in a log hauling accident. Shortly after the Civil War, bushwhackers from the Democrat South kidnapped infant George with his mother and sister. Moses Carver sent friends to track down the thieves and trade his best horse to retrieve them. The thieves only left baby George, lying on the ground, sick with the whooping cough, an illness which permanently effected his physical constitution. George never saw his mother and sister again. Illness claimed the lives of his two other sisters and they were buried on the Carver farm.
George and his older brother, Jim, were raised in Diamond Grove, Missouri, by "Uncle" Moses and "Aunt" Sue Carver, a childless German immigrant couple. In poor health as a child, George stayed near the house helping with chores, learning to cook, clean, sew, mend and wash laundry, skills that he would later use to support himself. His recreation was to spend time in the woods.
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The Carvers supported George's decision to leave home to attend school in Neosho, Missouri. He paid his own tuition by doing odd jobs. In the intervening years, George Carver drifted from Missouri, to Kansas, to Iowa, working as a cook and doing laundry.
He studied at Simpson College, then received a bachelor's and master's degree from Iowa State Agricultural Institute, where he was hired as a teacher.
In the Spring of 1896, Booker T. Washington invited George Washington Carver to teach in Alabama: "Tuskegee Institute seeks to provide education – a means for survival to those who attend. Our students are poor, often starving. They travel miles of torn roads, across years of poverty. We teach them to read and write, but words cannot fill stomachs. They need to learn how to plant and harvest crops. ... 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 challenge of bringing people from degradation, poverty and waste to full manhood."
On May 16, 1896, George W. Carver responded to Booker T. Washington: "My dear Sir, I am just in receipt of yours of the 13th inst., and hasten to reply. I am looking forward to a very busy, pleasant and profitable time at your college and shall be glad to cooperate with you in doing all I can through Christ who strengtheneth me to better the condition of our people. Some months ago I read your stirring address delivered at Chicago and I said amen to all you said, furthermore you have the correct solution to the 'race problem.' ... Providence permitting, I will be there in November. God bless you and your work, Geo. W. Carver."
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Booker T. Washington's solution of the "race problem" was to gain respect through economic independence, the path taken by every wave of immigrants, ie., German, Irish, Jewish, Polish, Italian, Asian, etc. Immigrants arrived at the bottom of the social ladder, often met with racial discrimination. They would work hard, get educated, start businesses, and pool their resources. As they accumulated wealth and made positive contributions to society, they rose in public respect.
Booker T. Washington stated: "At the bottom ... there must be for our race, as for all races ... economic prosperity, economic independence. ... Political independence disappears without economic independence."
He recommended they: "... concentrate all their energies on industrial education, and accumulation of wealth, and the conciliation of the South ... (then) Blacks would eventually gain full participation in society by showing themselves to be responsible, reliable American citizens."
Notable African-American business leaders include:
- Paul Cuffee (1759-1817) a devout Christian and successful sea captain of an all-black crew who built a shipping empire across the Atlantic
- James Forten (1766-1842), who made a fortune as a sailmaker in Philadelphia
- Samuel T. Wilcox (c.1850) built a high-quality wholesale and retail grocery business in Cincinnati, and had pickling and preserving business
- Stephen Smith (1795-1873) was a black minister who became wealthy building an extensive lumber business in Pennsylvania
- William Alexander Leidesdorff, Jr. (1810-1848) established a ship yard, lumber yard, ship chandlery shop, and built San Francisco's first hotel
- Robert Gordon (c.1846) became a wealthy coal dealer in Cincinnati
- Free Frank McWorter (1777-1854) started a saltpeter production operation – necessary for gunpowder – which helped during the War of 1812. He was the first black American to found a town – New Philadelphia, Illinois
- Sarah Breedlove (1867-1919), known as Madam C. J. Walker, developed a line of beauty and hair products and became the first female self-made millionaire in America
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In 1896, George Washington Carver surprised the staff at Iowa State College by announcing his plans to give up his promising future there and accept Booker T. Washington's offer to teach at Tuskegee Institute. The staff showed their appreciation by purchasing Carver a going away present – a microscope, which he used extensively throughout his career.
George assembled an Agricultural Department at Tuskegee. He visited nearby farmers and would teach them farming techniques, such as crop rotation, fertilization and erosion prevention. Carver noticed that the soil was depleted due to years of repeated cotton growth and produced very poorly.
During this time, an insect called the boll weevil swept through the South, destroying cotton crops and leaving farmers devastated. George showed the farmers the benefits of crop rotation and planting legumes, such as peanuts, which replenish the soil with nitrogen.
Farmers heeded Carver's advice but soon had more peanuts than the market wanted, as peanuts were primarily used as animal feed. George determined to find more uses for the peanut to increase the market for them. Carver is credited with discovering and/or popularizing hundreds of uses for the peanut, soybean, sweet potato, pecan, cowpea, wild plum, and okra, which helped to revolutionize the South's economy.
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A partial list of items derived from peanuts was compiled by the Carver Museum at Tuskegee:
- Beverages: Blackberry punch, cherry punch, lemon punch, orange punch, peanut punch, beverage for ice cream, evaporated peanut beverage; dry coffee, instant coffee, 32 different kinds of milk, dehydrated milk flakes, buttermilk
- Foods: Peanut butter, salted peanuts, peanut flour, peanut flakes, peanut meal, cream from peanut milk, butter from peanut milk, egg yolk, breakfast food, bisque powder, cheese, cream cheese, cheese pimento, cheese sandwich, cheese tutti frutti, cocoa, crystallized peanuts, curds, granulated potatoes, potato nibs, golden nuts, mock coconut, pancake flour, peanut hearts, peanut surprise, peanut wafers, pickle, sweet pickle, shredded peanuts, substitute asparagus
George Washington Carver addressed Congress and met with Presidents Teddy Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge and Franklin Roosevelt. He was offered jobs by Henry Ford and Thomas Edison, and received correspondence from world leaders, including Gandhi and Stalin.
George Washington Carver died Jan. 5, 1943.
In 1928, Dr. Carver stated: "Human need is really a great spiritual vacuum which God seeks to fill. ... With one hand in the hand of a fellow man in need and the other in the hand of Christ, He could get across the vacuum. ... Then the passage, 'I can do all things through Christ which strengthens me,' came to have real meaning."
In the summer of 1920, the Young Men's Christian Association of Blue Ridge, North Carolina, invited Professor Carver to speak at their summer school for the southern states. Dr. Willis D. Weatherford, president of Blue Ridge, introduced him as the speaker.
With his high voice surprising the audience, Dr. Carver exclaimed humorously: "I always look forward to introductions as opportunities to learn something about myself. ..."
He continued: "Years ago I went into my laboratory and said, 'Dear Mr. Creator, please tell me what the universe was made for?' The Great Creator answered, 'You want to know too much for that little mind of yours. Ask for something more your size, little man.' Then I asked, 'Please, Mr. Creator, tell me what man was made for.' Again the Great Creator replied, 'You are still asking too much. Cut down on the extent and improve the intent.' So then I asked, 'Please, Mr. Creator, will you tell me why the peanut was made?' 'That's better, but even then it's infinite. What do you want to know about the peanut?' 'Mr. Creator, can I make milk out of the peanut?' 'What kind of milk do you want? Good Jersey milk or just plain boarding house milk?' 'Good Jersey milk.' And then the Great Creator taught me to take the peanut apart and put it together again. And out of the process have come forth all these products!"
Among the numerous products displayed was a bottle of good Jersey milk. Three-and-a-half ounces of peanuts produced one pint of rich milk or one quart of raw "skim" milk, called boarding house "blue john" milk.
On Nov. 19, 1924, Carver spoke to over 500 people at the Women's Board of Domestic Missions: "God is going to reveal to us things He never revealed before if we put our hands in His. No books ever go into my laboratory. The thing I am to do and the way are revealed to me the moment I am inspired to create something new. Without God to draw aside the curtain, I would be helpless. Only alone can I draw close enough to God to discover His secrets."
On March 24, 1925, Carver wrote to Robert Johnson, an employee of Chesley Enterprises of Ontario: "Thank God I love humanity; complexion doesn't interest me one single bit."
Though from a disadvantaged background, George did not let this pull him down into self-pity, bitterness, or yielding to a hateful victim-hood mentality.
On March 1, 1927, George W. Carver wrote to Jack Boyd, a YMCA official in Denver, Colorado: "My beloved friend, keep your hand in that of the Master, walk daily by His side, so that you may lead others into the realms of true happiness, where a religion of hate, (which poisons both body and soul) will be unknown, having in its place the 'Golden Rule' way, which is the 'Jesus Way' of life, will reign supreme. ... Then, we can walk and talk with Jesus momentarily, because we will be attuned to His will and wishes. ... God, my beloved friend is infinite the highest embodiment of love. We are finite, surrounded and often filled with hate. We can only understand the infinite as we loose the finite and take on the infinite."
This was also the attitude of Booker T. Washington, who wrote in "Up From Slavery" (1901): "It is now long ago that I learned this lesson from General Samuel Chapman Armstrong, and resolved that I would permit no man, no matter what his color might be, to narrow and degrade my soul by making me hate him. With God's help, I believe that I have completely rid myself of any ill feeling toward the Southern white man for any wrong that he may have inflicted upon my race. I am made to feel just as happy now when I am rendering service to Southern white men as when the service is rendered to a member of my own race. I pity from the bottom of my heart any individual who is so unfortunate as to get into the habit of holding race prejudice."
On July 10, 1924, George Washington Carver wrote to James Hardwick: "God cannot use you as He wishes until you come into the fullness of His Glory. Do not get alarmed, my friend, when doubts creep in. That is old Satan. Pray, pray, pray. Oh, my friend, I am praying that God will come in and rid you entirely of self so you can go out after souls right, or rather have souls seek the Christ in you. This is my prayer for you always."
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